At Belmont, a chance for another spoiler?
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) Sitting posture perfect, the first clue to how intense her emotions still get was the constant kneading of the tablecloth between her fragile fingers.
Marylou Whitney, philanthropist, horse owner and socialite, was thinking back to one of the most spectacular Triple Crown upsets in history: her homebred Birdstone's victory over Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes.
''Before the race I told our jockey Edgar Prado, `Be second,''' the 89-year-old Whitney said, her speech slightly halted from a stroke years ago. ''I wanted to see a Triple Crown.''
She'll get another chance this year. Unless someone plays the role of spoiler again.
Whitney and husband John Hendrickson plan to be at Belmont Park on Saturday, hoping to see American Pharoah become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Waiting to spoil it all will be Hall of Famer Nick Zito.
Zito trained Belmont long shot Frammento, a horse with bloodline ties to Whitney's horses. And yes, if you're following along, Zito is the same trainer who sent out Birdstone to spoil one Triple Crown, then wrecked another four years later with Da'Tara after Big Brown was pulled up on the far turn and failed to finish.
''I want to see one,'' Whitney said in an interview at her Caddy Hill estate. ''Again,'' her husband gently reminds her, recalling that she'd already witnessed Secretariat's 1973 win and Affirmed's in 1978.
Frammento has blood ties to Inca Queen and Silver Fog, a line of Whitney horses that dates back 60 years. It's a bloodline Zito was familiar with when Whitney first approached him about training her horses decades ago. It's the reason he bought Frammento for owners Mossarosa.
Still, don't expect Whitney to cheer for him.
Likely to be in the 30-1 odds range, Frammento comes into the 1 1/2-mile Belmont well rested after barely qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. He finished 11th. The colt put in a final workout Saturday at Saratoga's training track, covering a half mile in 49.30 seconds.
''We're hoping he'll be a live long shot,'' Zito said.
Be wary of the New York trainer, especially in the Belmont. Besides two huge upsets - each at more than 35-1 - Zito has finished second seven times and third three times. That's 12 top 3 finishes with 24 Belmont starters.
Of course, there's a method to Zito's magic. Even if it sounds a little unusual.
''I wanted to get him in the Derby to run 1 1/4 miles against those horses,'' he explained, a sly smile on his face. ''Then, I'd take him to the Belmont.''
The Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races, and many times it's that final quarter-mile that becomes the true ''Test of the Champion.''
''I like taking those chances,'' Zito said. ''I prepare them. I think it's good for a horse to preserve energy before a race like that. And look, I have a pretty good record in the Belmont. We're in the money 50 per cent. And, as I've said, `if you don't run, you can't even lose.'''
He's fine if American Pharoah wins and becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner, too.
As for Frammento, winner of a maiden race in eight career starts, Zito says, ''I'm hoping he's one of those seven seconds, or maybe a Birdstone or Da' Tara.''
A crowd of 90,000 is expected for the race and many will be rooting for Zito. He remembers the reaction when Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in the final 70 yards in a finish that brought a hush over a record crowd of more than 120,000.
Boos could be heard as Birdstone was led into the winner's circle. Zito, though, believes he got off easy from a New York crowd that can be ruthless.
''That was a hard horse not to root for. All of America was backing Smarty Jones,'' Zito said. ''Thank God it was the Whitneys and Nick Zito, a New York guy. I think we did OK with the people. I think we got a pass.''
Whitney doesn't recall it quite that way. With little security around, she had a hard time making it to the winner's circle, and said she was helped through the crowd by several young men.
''I felt like I won, but the crowd hates me,'' Whitney said. ''I don't blame them. They all came here to see a Triple Crown. I did, too.''
How about now?
''We'll be rooting for American Pharoah,'' Hendrickson said.
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