Nick Zito is consumed with winning the Kentucky Derby.
The Hall of Fame trainer has done it twice, with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994.
Since then he's come up empty, but his 0-for-16 is not from lack of trying. Three years ago, he couldn't win even with a record-tying five 3-year-olds in the 20-horse field. The last two years, he didn't have a horse in the race.
"I'm supposed to be in it," Zito said. "It's been kind of tough."
Zito has a serious stable of Derby contenders this time, topped by undefeated War Pass and Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man, both owned by Robert LaPenta. There's also Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Fierce Wind and perhaps a few late-bloomers.
War Pass has been the prime Derby prospect since completing a perfect 2-year-old campaign with a front-running 4¾-length romp in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The lightning-fast colt opened this season with win No. 5, a 7½-length romp over lightly regarded opponents in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 24. That same day, Cool Coal Man won for the fourth time in five starts in the Fountain of Youth.
"An amazing day," LaPenta recalled.
Others may not be far off.
With the 1¼-mile Derby in seven weeks, War Pass moves into the final stages of his prep season when he takes on six challengers in Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby. A final prep is set for the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, and then it's on to Churchill Downs and the Derby on May 3.
Taking on War Pass in the 1 1-16th-mile Tampa Bay Derby are Atoned, Big Truck, Cigar Man, Gentleman James, Make Me Zach and Dynamic Wayne. Not exactly the toughest group of 3-year-olds.
If the road to the Derby appears an easy one for War Pass, it's somewhat by design. LaPenta said his bay colt who storms to the lead and refuses to give it up, did most of his heavy work last year, ending with wins in the Champagne Stakes and the BC Juvenile. Plus, War Pass earned enough money -- he's at $1.3 million -- to qualify for the Derby if more than the maximum of 20 horses are entered.
"There's nobody better at preparing a horse for a Derby than Nick Zito," LaPenta said. "What we were looking to do (after the BC Juvenile) is just rest him and then slowly bring him back and condition him up to that mile-and-a-quarter."
With two comfortable preps, followed by a likely difficult tuneup in the 1-mile Wood, the feeling is War Pass should be in peak form for the Derby. The same is hoped for Cool Coal Man, who opened his 3-year-old season with an allowance win before the Fountain of Youth. The colt's final Derby prep will be the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 12, a race run over a synthetic surface believed to take less out of a horse than races on dirt.
LaPenta, who sends most of his 2-year-olds to Zito, said the trainer has always been consistent in his Derby preparations.
"Once they become 3-year-olds, I think he's very, very conservative in the race selection," LaPenta said. "I mean if you need the money to get to the Derby it's one thing. If you basically punched your ticket, I think then it becomes much more conservative."
War Pass, ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, has proven to be a formidable opponent, with the biggest question whether the colt has the stamina to maintain his speed over 1¼ miles.
"I am hoping there's a chink in his armor," said David Carroll, who trains Derby prospects Denis of Cork and Blackberry Road. "He's unbeaten so we have to look at something to give us some hope. Obviously, that would be it. He's an exciting horse to watch run. He just goes out there and runs them off their feet and dares you to go after him -- and if you do -- it's damned if you do, damned if you don't.
"If we get to the first Saturday in May we're hoping that when he gets to the eighth pole, that's when we start wishing there was a chink in his armor."
LaPenta welcomes the competition, calling Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner Pyro the biggest threat to War Pass.
"He certainly seems to be able to handle the distance," LaPenta said of Pyro. "They brought him up closer to the pace, which I think would be interesting. I'm knocking on wood as I talk to you, (but) I think War Pass is a really special animal, and I think he's going to surprise a lot of people with his stamina."
LaPenta got into racing in 1998, as a partner with basketball coach Rick Pitino, and began his own operation in 2001 -- choosing maroon and gold silks in honor of his alma mater, Iona.
Zito picks out many of the yearlings LaPenta buys, and then the owner puts the horse up for sale the following year. If the reserve price isn't reached, or if an injury pops up, LaPenta usually keeps the horse.
LaPenta purchased War Pass for $180,000 at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sale. The next spring, the son of 1994 BC Sprint winner Cherokee Run was up for sale but was pulled out with ankle chips. Cool Coal Man brought $200,000 at the Keeneland sale, but failed to meet the owner's reserve bid of $850,000 at another sale.
Among current Derby contenders originally purchased by LaPenta are Court Vision and Fierce Wind.
LaPenta and Zito have teamed up in the Derby before. In 2003, The Cliff's Edge was the morning-line favorite and wound up a credible fifth behind Smarty Jones after losing two shoes in a race run over a sloppy track. In 2005, one of Zito's five entries was Andromeda's Hero, who finished eighth.
While LaPenta is seeking his first Derby win, Zito is itching for his elusive third.
"We haven't won another Derby (since 1994), and we had all those chances in 2005," Zito said. "Great expectations bring great disappointments. ... I would like to have peace. I would like to win another Derby."