Nick Zito – Horse Trainer

Nick Zito has accomplished many things in his 70 years of life. Chief among these is a brilliance for training thoroughbred race horses. What many people may not know is that Zito is also a tireless advocate for the well-being of retired race horses and horses that are still in competition. He is a rare breed among horse trainers. Zito is a man that is willing to place principle and integrity above a desire to win at all costs.

Nick Zito Starts at the Bottom

Nick Zito was born in 1948 in New York City. He began his career in horse racing like so many other young men by starting at the very bottom. Zito worked as a hot walker. These individuals are employed to cool horses out after a workout or a race. The job is not a glamorous one. It involves walking the horse around the shedrow of a barn over and over again. Many times the horses are unruly and hard to handle, and hotwalkers are generally paid less than other employees in the barn. Those who stick it out are sometimes rewarded by being elevated to the position of groom. Such was the case with Zito.


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As a groom, Nick Zito learned about the care of race horses. He was able to see how horses responded to the rigors of training. He learned how to apply bandages and other remedies. All of this knowledge would serve Zito has he progressed in his career, but more than anything else they taught him that horses were capable of feeling like any other creature. This instilled a care for the well-being of horses, and most will tell you that keeping horses safe and healthy has been a hallmark of Zito’s career.

The next step for Nick Zito on his journey was to become an assistant trainer. He worked under the tutelage of experienced horsemen while he continued to expand the knowledge he would need to form his own racing stable. It did not take long before the young man had obtained his own trainer’s license and struck out on the adventure that would culminate in victories on the biggest stages in horse racing.

Nick Zito Finds Success

There are many who would contend that training horses is as much a gamble as betting on them. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting that Zito’s first champion was named Thirty Six Red after a number on a roulette wheel. Zito was able to guide the horse to a victory in the Wood Memorial Stakes, one of the major prep races for the Kentucky Derby. The horse would not win one of the Classic races, but did manage to score a second place finish in the Belmont Stakes. For Zito, this was a dream come true. He continued to set his sights on the Triple Crown series and cultivated relationships with owners who had the ability to get horses that could compete in such big events.

Strike the Gold was one of the next major successes for Zito’s stable. The horse was a son of the legendary Alydar and was owned by BCC stable. Zito led the horse through an amazing career which netted over $3 million in earnings. Another horse that put Zito on the map was Birdstone owned by Marylou Whitney. Birdstone is perhaps most famous for winning the 2004 Belmont Stakes and spoiling the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones was the recipient of major media attention and had become a favorite of racing fans and non-racing fans alike. After his win in the Belmont Stakes, some fans at Belmont Park were upset and pelted the elder Whitney with trash after the race. Zito was particularly upset by the events and criticized race fans for a lack of class. It was, after all, his job to win the race.

War Pass emerged in 2005 as a result of the partnership between Zito and owner Robert V. LaPenta. The two men have collaborated on a number of successful racing campaigns. War Pass was considered to be a legitimate contender for the Triple Crown series until he suffered an injury in the Wood Memorial and had to be taken out of contention.

To date, Zito has five Classic wins and two Breeders’ Cup wins. He has won almost 2,000 races. This may not seem like a lot for such a long career, but it speaks well of how careful Zito is with his horses. He does not run them irresponsibly. Zito was inducted into the National Musuem of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2005 for his accomplishments on the race track. It is his accomplishments off the track which have defined him, though, as a fierce advocate for the well-being of race horses.

Nick Zito and the National Horse Protection Coalition

Nick Zito has been named an Honorary Director and Spokesman for the National Horse Protection Coalition. The work that he does for the organization is the product of a lifelong interest in the well-being of race horses.

It is a sad fact today that horses on many racing circuits are not treated well. This is especially true of cheap claiming horses. These horses are often called upon to run more than once a month and are raced well beyond the limits of their endurance. They are also often campaigned until they reach ages of 8 or more. Because so many of these horses are geldings and have no stud value or are mares that don’t have the breeding necessary to produce valuable offspring, their value becomes almost nothing when they can no longer earn money on the race track.

Zito and the National Horse Protection Coalition work to insure that horses are treated well in retirement. They also try to prevent abuses that may happen on the race track during a horse’s career. Zito has donated much of his own time and money to the organization and to other efforts that are designed to protect horses.

The approach of Nick Zito and his philosophy regarding horses is sorely needed in the racing world today. This is an era where far too many race horse trainers take shortcuts in an effort to win. Illegal drug use is rampant in the sport, and there often seems to be no punishment for those who willingly break the rules. Zito has managed to avoid the stain that comes from medication violations by keeping his horses clean. He should be remembered for this when his career is over.

Some trainers appear at the Kentucky Derby each year with new horses. Zito may not appear every year, but when he does you can rest assured that the horse he is bringing to the affair is a legitimate contender. Now 70 years old, Zito shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He continues to train and await his next chance at pursuing the Triple Crown.

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