December 6, 2014 — Nick Zito is best known to Gulfstream Park fans as a trainer of Kentucky Derby winners, but the Hall of Fame trainer was the King of the Claimers on December 6 for the second year in a row.
Zito saddled Catholic Cowboy for a 17-1 upset victory in the $200,000 Jewel, the grand finale of Saturday’s eight-stakes $1 million Claiming Crown on Opening Day of the 2014-2015 Championship Meet. Last year, the Brooklyn native visited the winner’s circle with Nevada Kid after his victory in the Jewel, a 1 1/8-mile stakes for horses that started for a claiming price of $35,000 or less since Jan. 1, 2013.
“What I need to do is try to win another Kentucky Derby,” said Zito, who trained Kentucky Derby winners Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994). “But at the end of the day, if this is what the Good Lord wants, and I can win these things every year, it’s not so bad.”
Catholic Cowboy’s victory brought down the curtain of yet another highly successful Claiming Crown renewal at Gulfstream Park. The on-track handle for Saturday’s 10-race program soared 36 percent from last year’s figures, while the all-sources handle got a 13-percent boost. A total of $10.060 million was wagered on the card, up from $8.8 million.
Catholic Cowboy settled in the first cluster of horses a few lengths off the loose-on-the-lead pacesetter, Cerro, around the first turn and along the backstretch. Jockey Luis Saez asked his mount to pick up the pace leaving the backstretch and on the far turn, and he advanced steadily as Cerro showed the way into the stretch, chased by Kings Over and Cease. Cerro continued to show the way under Cecily Evans into mid-stretch, when Catholic Cowboy responded to the urgent handling of his jockey to loom a danger. As the pacesetter and his pursuers began to weaken, Catholic Cowboy took over on the outside and went on to victory by a half-length, holding off the late surge of Page McKenney, the 9-2 favorite in a field of 14.
“He’s brave, and when he’s brave he gets himself in good position. When we came to the three-eighths pole I saw somebody pass me from the outside and he looked like I was done. But when we turned in the stretch and I started riding him, he responded to me. He just took off. Last year we won the same race, so it feels good to win again. It’s great,” said Saez, who was aboard the 2013 Jewel winner, Nevada Kid, for Zito.
Catholic Cowboy, who earned $110,000 for owner Joseph Moss, ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.70 to return $37.80 for a $2 win wager. Page McKenney finished second under Jose Lezcano, a neck in front of Cerro. Eriugena, Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s bid for a third Claiming Crown victory Saturday, closed from 14 to finish fourth.
Catholic Cowboy, a $12,000 yearling purchase, raced in a maiden race for $35,000 at Belmont Park in his ninth career start before breaking his maiden in a $50,000 claiming race at Gulfstream Park two starts later on Jan. 20. The son of Heatseeker never raced in another claiming race while racing competitively in allowance and starter allowance races. After back-to-back victories at Belmont and Saratoga during the summer, the Florida-bred 4-year-old turned in two mysteriously poor showings at Keeneland in October.
“He went a little funny on us. We didn’t understand why, so we did the next best thing and gelded him. That always helps, because the mind goes back to where it’s supposed to be,” Zito said. “He’s been fantastic now. He had some great works. Luis (Saez) wouldn’t give up, and that was the key.”
Catholic Cowboy provided his trainer with yet another happy moment at Gulfstream Park.
“Gulfstream is always good to us. We were talking today, my son Alex and I, about how Gulfstream’s been good to us the past decade, longer than that. It’s always been a good lucky track for us,” Zito said. “Our horse seemed to like it.”
To read a recap of the seven other Claiming Crown races, visit www.gulfstreampark.com.