A tick past four o'clock last Saturday afternoon, about an hour and 35 minutes before post time of the 120th Kentucky Derby, trainer Nick Zito was leaning against a wall at the end of Barn 42 at Churchill Downs and contemplating the attractive head of his long-shot Derby horse, Go for Gin, who was peering out of stall 21 about 10 yards away. Two days of rain had turned the racetrack into the runniest chocolate mousse in Louisville—the last of the day's intermittent downpours had only just ended—and Zito sensed that events were turning for him again, just as they had when he trained Strike the Gold to his 1991 Derby win out of the other end of this same barn.
"When a horse races in the mud like this colt does—and he loves a sloppy racetrack—I have to think that the man upstairs is shining on me again," the 46-year-old trainer said. "He already shined on me once here. But I know one thing: You have to be lucky to win the Kentucky Derby. Lucky with the post-position draw, lucky with the traffic in the race, lucky with the weather. This is a quality horse. He'll give it his all, and I'm telling you now: He'll put on a show."
And a show it was indeed, as things turned out, one of the most fascinating renewals of the race in years, and one in which Go for Gin was a better racehorse than he had ever been, with good fortune following him at every turn. It was a Derby in which the favorite, the gray front-running bullet, Holy Bull, left the gate as though he wished he were playing golf, got pinched badly and never got into the race; in which the second choice, Brocco, got left at the break as he gawked like a tourist at the grandstand crowds and never got close enough to breathe on the leader; in which another contender, Valiant Nature, nearly fell when he apparently clipped the heels of Holy Bull on the first turn and immediately called it an afternoon; and in which the eventual winner, cruising along on the front end, experienced an absolutely perfect trip as he splashed happily around the oval under jockey Chris McCarron, who rode him flawlessly over the mile and a quarter—despite the fact that this was his first race aboard the colt.
Moments after Go for Gin sailed under the wire, winning by two lengths over the late-charging Strodes Creek, there was Zito, floating through the clubhouse crowds in a state quite approaching delirium. The 130,000 horseplayers in attendance had sent Go for Gin off at 9-1, and a crush of bettors, waving pari-mutuel tickets, mobbed Zito in the corridors, pumped his hands and shouted his name—"Way to go, Nick!"—as he made his way down to the winner's circle. "We did it again!" Zito cried all along the way, his voice already gravelly from his exultations. "This is the Kentucky Derby! This is it! We won! I can't believe it!"
If the running of the Derby stunned the legions of Holy Bull and Brocco followers, even Go for Gin's co-owners, William Condren and Joseph Cornacchia—who, together with B. Giles Brophy, co-owned Strike the Gold when he won the Derby—were clearly dazed. "I didn't think he'd do it, but he did," said Cornacchia as he headed for the winner's circle. "I'm still shaking."
The two New York owners—Cornacchia, a publisher of games such as Pictionary, and Condren, an investor in real estate and other enterprises—paid $150,000 for the colt at the Saratoga yearling sales in August 1992, and Zito liked the way the young bay moved from the moment he slipped tack on him as a 2-year-old. It did not take Zito long to learn of the colt's affinity for sloppy racetracks. Last Oct. 21, in his third start as a maiden, Go for Gin caught a muddy track over a mile at Aqueduct and raced with relish to a 10½-length victory. "The way a horse should break his maiden," Zito said the day before the Derby.
In his next start Go for Gin skipped to the lead on another sloppy surface and widened it to 9¾ lengths. If the colt reveled in wet going, it became clear soon enough that he did not need it to win. On Nov. 27 Go for Gin closed out his 2-year-old campaign by wiring the field on a fast track in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, drawing off by 8½ lengths. So Nick Zito had himself a Derby horse.
The colt wintered in Florida and came out with what Zito called a "devastating" victory in the 1[1/16]-mile Preview Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 22. But a month later, in the rain-drenched Fountain of Youth, Go for Gin couldn't catch last year's 2-year-old champion, Dehere. Zito had been thinking he had a world-beater on his hands—"I was looking for the Spectacular Bid type of horse," he said, referring to the 3-year-old champion of 1979—and that day he found that he did not. "I was disappointed and a little upset," he said.
Undeterred, Zito sent the horse out against Holy Bull in the Florida Derby on March 12, and Go for Gin never had a chance. In the single most dominating performance in all the races leading to Louisville, the Bull won by almost six, and Go for Gin finished fourth. Curiously, Zito was not discouraged as he prepared for the April 16 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the colt's final race leading up to the Derby. On the eve of the Wood, looking ahead to Kentucky, he told New York turf writer Jenny Kellner, "You know that I'm gonna be the one standing up on that podium at Churchill Downs for the second time in four years."
In the Wood the colt finished 1½ lengths behind Irgun, but the race was his finest performance of the year, according to the speed handicappers, and Zito came to Kentucky with a swagger in his step, warning all who would listen not to overlook his horse. When Jerry Bailey, Go for Gin's regular jockey, opted to ride Irgun in the Kentucky Derby—a lamentable decision for Bailey, as matters developed, for Irgun was taken out of training on April 26 with an injury—Zito reached for Hall of Famer McCarron, who knows how to turn left at Churchill Downs, having won the Derby with Alysheba in 1987.
McCarron's agent, Scotty McClellan, approached Zito around the time of the Wood, when it became clear that Go for Gin might be riderless as the Derby approached; when Zito offered McCarron the ride, the jockey and his agent fairly leaped at the chance. And for their part, Zito and his owners were delighted to have him. "A great rider," said Zito. The only dissonant voice was McCarron's wife, Judy, a native Bostonian who had been terrified in recent months by the powerful earthquake and its aftershocks that rattled the McCarron home in Southern California. When her husband goes on the road, Judy usually stays home with their three daughters—Erin, 15; Stephanie, 14; and Kristin, 11. "I don't like to leave the kids, especially with the earth moving," Judy said. And she has become increasingly uneasy with Chris on the road while the plates are shifting. So she appealed to him to change his mind about riding Go for Gin in faraway Louisville. "You don't have to ride in the Derby," she said. "Please don't go...."
But McCarron rides horses for a living, and My Old Kentucky Home is a siren song for every jockey in America. "I gotta go," he told her. In fact, the weekend before the race, he flew to Louisville to ride a Preakness prospect, Numerous, in the Derby Trial. McCarron won the Trial, and he stayed overnight to work Go for Gin in the mud on Sunday morning. Clockers caught him going six furlongs in 1:15, with the final quarter in a brisk :23[3/5]. Zito loved the work: "He's training unbelievable," he said. McCarron was buoyed. Returning home that day, he sat Judy down at the dining-room table and made an unusual appeal. For years she had avoided attending his major races, thinking that her presence put the whammy on him; but that changed on April 24 at Santa Anita when her husband won the San Juan Capistrano aboard Bien Bien with Judy cheering from a clubhouse box.
"Would you do me a favor?" he asked. "I want you to come back with me to the Derby. That horse of mine worked out of his skin this morning. He has such a nice way of going, and I want you there with me. You're my good-luck charm."
"How can I say no?" she asked.
So Chris McCarron was coming to the Derby with his lucky charm in tow and a live wire to ride. By the time he got to Louisville on Friday, the central question in the prerace debate had been addressed endlessly and to no end: Since a free-running Holy Bull, loose on the lead, would surely win, which of the other horses was going to soften him up for the late chargers? "Hooking the Bull is like playing Russian roulette with six bullets in the gun," said Carl Nafzger, the trainer of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled. "You're dead."
Since no one was volunteering, Zito had decided to hook the favorite himself if no one else stepped up. Says McCarron: "My instructions from Nick were that if no one was in a position to press Holy Bull, he wanted me to assume that role." Thus, Go for Gin left the gate running, with McCarron chirping to his colt to get position, while jockey Mike Smith and Holy Bull came out slowly and got caught back. So there was the fastest colt in the race running behind a wall of horses and going nowhere. In the end the 2-1 favorite would finish 12th in the field of 14. "I don't know what happened," said Smith afterward. "I'm at a loss for words."
Brocco, the second favorite, at 4-1, was in a tangle of his own. He was supposed to break quickly and lie close throughout, but the California colt was caught at the start with his mind elsewhere. "He missed the break by two lengths," said jockey Gary Stevens. "But he didn't just get left. He walked out of there." And he ended up on the rail, the deadest and most tiring part of the track that day, burning himself out to make up ground and eventually finishing fourth. But the heady McCarron, by studying the races run previously that afternoon, knew he must keep his colt toward the middle of the track. "I thought that three or four horses out off the fence was a safe place to be," he said.
It was perfect. Turning into the back-stretch, now cruising along on the lead—off the rail and with Go for Gin relaxing in long, rhythmic strides—McCarron had his colt in the best of all places. Said the rider, "I thought to myself, If he can gallop like this to the head of the lane, he's gonna be very tough to overhaul."
And that he was as he swept off the turn for home and dashed into the straight. Coming to the eighth pole, Go for Gin opened up a lead of two lengths. It was his Kentucky Derby all the way through the lane. McCarron steadied and hand-rode him home in 2:03[3/5] for the 10 furlongs, a good time over such a wearying surface, and the finish sent Zito careening to the winner's podium for the second time in four years. Just where he said he would be. "This is better than the first time," he shouted.
And McCarron, from high atop his horse in the winner's circle, spotted Judy and yelled down to her, "I told you to come!"