Trainer Nick Zito
Trainer Nick Zito needed one start at the 2019 Oaklawn meeting to break his maiden.
Topping a Hall of Fame exacta for Zito and owner My Meadowview Farm LLC (Leonard Riggio), Lenstar was a front-running allowance winner Jan. 27 under Channing Hill. Lenstar represented the first career Oaklawn victory for Zito, 71, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who has a string in Hot Springs for the first time this year.
“It was good,” Zito said. “I’m an enthusiastic racetrack person, but basically racetrack nut, I guess is the right way to put it, so I love all this stuff. So, for me, it’s easy to adapt to. This is an old-fashioned deal, which I like. I’m a traditionalist. I like that.”
Based most of the year in his native New York or Florida, Zito had 2,033 career North American victories through Wednesday, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Zito saddled his first winner in 1973 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2005. Zito is stabled next to his good friend, trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs.
Zito noted Oaklawn’s commitment to the future, pointing to new barns being built and track President Louis Cella’s November announcement of a $100 million-plus construction project for a high-rise hotel, multi-purpose event center and gaming expansion.
“I like what the Cellas are doing, with the hotel and building new barns,” Zito said. “For me, I’m happy to be here. I always wanted to try it. I had a lot of nice horses a few years ago. Good friends with Ronnie, so when I had a horse to run in the Arkansas Derby, I would ship to his barn. Glad we’re here this time.”
Lenstar was only the sixth Oaklawn starter for Zito since 1976 and first since Truman’s Commander in the 2011 Arkansas Derby. Zito also had a starter in the 2008 Rebel Stakes (Anak Nakal), 2006 Oaklawn Handicap (Andromeda’s Hero), 2006 Arkansas Derby (Superfly) and the 2005 Arkansas Derby (Andromeda’s Hero).
Lenstar, a 5-year-old Shackleford gelding, finished 1 ½ lengths ahead of Gray Sky, who is trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Riggio is chairman of bookstore giant Barnes & Noble.
“It was awesome getting back in the Meadowview silks,” Hill said. “I used to ride a horse named Doc Cheney for Nick and My Meadowview. He got beat in the Withers, which was Bernardini’s Preakness prep.”
Bernardini toppled Doc Cheney by 3 ¾ lengths in the Withers, won the Preakness in his next start and was named champion 3-year-old male of 2006.
Hill rode the Zito-trained Commentator, a future multiple Grade 1 winner and millionaire, to a 16 ½-length allowance score in a 2005 allowance sprint at Belmont Park.
“Nick put me on a lot of nice horses,” Hill said. “It’s cool to have him here. He’s cool, just because of the stories and stuff. I love watching races from the late ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s and it just fascinates me how many good horses Mr. Lukas and Mr. Zito had all the time. It’s nuts.”
Zito has two horses entered Saturday at Oaklawn, including Revenio, a 3-year-old first-time starter by Giant’s Causeway, in the fifth race.
Through Sunday, the sixth day of the scheduled 57-day season, Ricardo Santana Jr. topped the jockey standings with nine victories, three more than David Cohen and Ramon Vazquez. Santana, 26, is seeking his seventh consecutive Oaklawn riding title.
Santana has at least one victory the last 13 racing days at Oaklawn, dating to April 6, 2018. Santana has 23 winners during that span, highlighted by his 1,000th North American score April 12 aboard Westfest and second career Grade 1 triumph in the $700,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) the following day aboard Unbridled Mo.
Santana began riding at Oaklawn in 2011 and has 421 career victories, including 27 stakes, in Hot Springs. His mounts have amassed $18,872,566. Santana set a single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings ($4,240,304) last year.
Early bird nominations to the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 18, $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16 and $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 13 closed Thursday. The races are Oaklawn’s final major Kentucky Derby preps. … Zia Park Derby winner Nanoosh remains on schedule to make his 4-year-old debut in the $500,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) Feb. 18, trainer Robertino Diodoro said Tuesday morning. Nanoosh worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 Sunday morning. … Allen Milligan, Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2009, had 999 career victories after winning Thursday’s third race, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. … Through Sunday, the sixth day of the scheduled 57-day season, 58 claims had totaled $833,500 at the meeting.