Oaklawn had 781 horses on the grounds early Thursday morning, including 20 for a newcomer with quite the resume.
According to stall superintendent Beverly Fowler, the contingent for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito arrived at 1:45 a.m. (Central) Thursday and was then dispatched to the Citation barn, located directly across from horses housed for his friend, trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs.
A two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, Zito, 70, is a winter fixture in his native New York and Florida and now has a division at Oaklawn for the first time. Zito has started only a handful of horses in Hot Springs since saddling his first career winner in 1973.
“He'll be right there beside me,” Moquett said Thursday morning. “We actually made sure to have his stalls ready for him. No matter what, when I ship to Belmont, he's kind of an ambassador. Whenever he's here, I'll do the same.”
Moquett said he met Zito in 2005 when they were stabled next to each other at Keeneland.
Becoming friends, Moquett said, helped his career and facilitate a deal about a year later, when owner Ted Bowman purchased a nine-horse package put together by Zito and his longtime client, Robert LaPenta. One of those horses, Seek Gold, at odds of 91-1, gave Moquett his first Grade 1 victory several weeks later in the $844,500 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs.
“He thought whenever those owners wanted to get rid of those horses, he thought somebody taking care of them with a smaller outfit could probably get more out of them,” Moquett said. “Those guys, to be honest, weren't interested in shipping horses to a $100,000 stake at Mountaineer. They wanted to win Grade 1 races. That's fine. I was OK with going to Mountaineer or Louisiana Downs or wherever I needed.”
Moquett said the presence of Zito in Hot Springs is a win-win for Oaklawn, which is already a winter home for two other Hall of Fame trainers, D. Wayne Lukas and Steve Asmussen.
“He is somebody that these fans will love,” Moquett said. “He has won the big races on the national stage, still approachable and still loves the game. He is the kind of guy Oaklawn wraps itself around. The racing community of Oaklawn will love having Nick Zito here. I think Nick, in turn, will come one time and fall in love and he'll be a regular.”
Zito had 2,031 career North American victories through Wednesday, according to Equibase, racing's official data gathering organization. Armed with five Triple Crown race victories, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2005.
Moquett and LaPenta are co-owners of multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Whitmore, runner-up in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs.
Oaklawn's 2019 meeting begins Jan. 25.
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