Sometimes numbers don't tell the whole story.
Take the case of Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who with Morning Line's game victory in the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby last Saturday was winning just his third American Graded Stakes of the year.
There's still three months to go in 2010, but so far it's been a year of “what might have been” for Zito. He finished second with G1 Florida Derby winner Ice Box in the Kentucky Derby, third with Jackson Bend in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont and Travers Stakes with Fly Down, the latter defeat one of the toughest beats of the year when Afleet Express got the nod in a head-bobbing finish.
Zito, full-time trainer and part-time philosopher, summed it up for Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News as only he can: “It's been a great year, it's been a tough year, it's been a trying year. This is really sweet.”
“It's just gratifying,” Zito told Daily Racing Form's David Grening. “I'm human … You got to be content, I tried to be content, but when you're in a sport and you're competitive, it hurts. But I'm extremely blessed this year to be in every single big 3-year-old race … I'm very, very gratified to win the Pennsylvania Derby for a third time.”
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Zito, 62, obviously isn't ready to rest on the laurels that earned him induction into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2005. I doubt any member of the Hall of Fame feels content to coast to the end of their career—though for many it gets tougher and more competitive as younger trainers arrive on the scene and attract many of the most ambitious owners and top horses.
Currently there are 13 active trainers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, yet only two of them make the list of leaders by 2010 AGS wins: Bob Baffert, the 2009 inductee who has 18 AGS victories this year, and Bill Mott, the 1998 inductee with 11 AGS victories this year. Only three of these 13 Hall of Famers are in the top 25 by 2010 purse earnings: Baffert is third behind Todd Pletcher, Mott is sixth, and Zito 10th.
Neil Drysdale, inducted in 2000, has five AGS wins this year, followed by Zito's three; Jonathan Sheppard, inducted in 1990, also has three; Shug McGaughey (2004), has two; H. Allen Jerkens (1975), Ron McAnally (1990), and Richard Mandella (2001) each has one AGS win this year. Jack Van Berg (1985), LeRoy Jolley (1987), D. Wayne Lukas (1998), and Carl Nafzger (2008) are with an American Graded Stakes win in 2010.
Have these horsemen lost the skills and understanding of the Thoroughbred that helped get them elected into the Hall? Doubtful. Some may have slowed down due to age or health issues, a few may not possess the communication skills that a new generation of owners demand from their trainers, but the majority have simply not been getting the same quality of horses they've had before.
Finally, let's not overlook the fact that some of these horsemen are not willing to engage in what Van Berg called “chemical warfare” involving permitted therapeutic medications or more nefarious substances which racing cannot currently detect in post-race or even out-of-competition testing.
In some ways, it would be like having Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer in their prime, using their old golf clubs and balls, taking on Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who would use modern equipment.
The game has changed, and some who play it haven't.
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