HALLENDALE BEACH, January 14, 2012—It was just like old times for trainer Nick Zito, sort of. “Sometimes, when a Zito horse wins, the fans knock down the goal posts. But when I’m in a slump like this, it feels like the goal posts are on me.”

What did you expect? This is the divisional playoffs weekend after all.

It was amazing that Zito scored a touchdown with Jackson Bend when considering the conditions, the post, the stumble at the start, and the trip, I’m sure he would have settled for some equine field goal.

“I’ll tell you,” he volunteered further. “The conditions of this race are tricky. When I first read them I thought, ‘OK, first time back, 119 is all right’. Then you look further and see that a Grade 1 winner had to carry 123.”

Jackson Bend carried the weight, most of it Johnny Velazquez, without whose participation there might not even have been a field goal scored.

After the bad start, Velazquez allowed Jackson Bend to get into the race on his own, saving ground on what might have been the dullest part of a surface that played dully all afternoon, the fence, the surface very likely drying out from brisk winds in the face of the horses in the backstretch run on a brisk afternoon.

“I’ve been watching replays of his races and he can be a little bad [at the start]. He didn’t really stumble but didn’t break that well.” Was he concerned about getting trapped inside?

“I was sitting behind them [on the turn] waiting, I didn’t know if I should go inside or outside. But then I took the easy way out and said, ‘I’ll just take him outside.’ It worked out great.”

Velazquez was being modest. Yes, he did tip outside, but he had to wait to secure room. But he managed to split horses while five wide and Jackson Bend generously responded like classy horses do, outsprinting Sangaree who was rallying strongly down the center of the track.

At the finish, Jackson Bend was a length in front of Sangaree, who was in receipt of 6 pounds. Sangaree had a neck in front of 28-1 Cool Blue Red Hot, who raced very well; fourth finisher Soaring Empire, beaten by 5-1/4, not so much. “After 5 ½ months off, he just got tired,” said trainer Cam Gambolati. The demanding surface didn’t help either.

Meanwhile, Zito, as promised this week, will keep Jackson Bend around one turn, likely the Gulfstream Park Handicap at the same flat mile in mid-March. The spacing of that race is good on both ends.

“I’ve never won the Met Mile,” Zito mused, “been in the money a bunch of times and I’d sure like to win one.”

Then you’d have plenty of time until the James Marvin in Saratoga, right? The Marvin was the race that started Jackson Bend’s one-turn ascendancy. Zito just smiled and said, “it’s a Grade 3 this year.”

Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher

Completing today’s hat trick after surviving a stretch run and a claim of foul, Silver Medallion won the co-featured Fort Lauderdale Stakes. “He didn’t get away that well then he came with a good run for three-eighths of a mile,” said Pletcher. “We’ll see how he comes out of it but we’ll probably bring him back in the Gulfstream Turf Handicap,” [Grade 1, February 11].

One horse who will not return for a rematch is Flat Out, who made his turf debut in the event. “He just doesn’t care for it,” said trainer Scooter Dickey of the horse that finished last of 12. “I’ll make sure he’s OK and we’ll definitely be keeping him on the dirt.”

Making his U.S. debut was the 9-5 favorite Mutual Trust, a European shipper who could finish no better than sixth. “He didn’t finish well,” said trainer Bill Mott. “He was going easy enough but couldn’t stay with them the last sixteenth of a mile. We have no [future] plans right now.”

We inquired about his runner before the race. “I’m anxious to see him run myself,” Mott said. Now he has and could not have enjoyed what he saw. Mott will travel to Los Angeles for the Eclipse Award ceremonies in which Royal Delta is an overwhelming favorite to be named 3 year old filly champion. He might also collect a bauble for himself, as he’s a finalist for the 2011 Training title.

Maiden Breakers

I saw my first mile and a sixteenth race at Gulfstream Park in the flesh. Interesting experience, like most new things are.

The first thing you notice is that the run to the first turn is not as severe as I expected. The run to the bend was short, of course, and post positions 8 and farther out will be up against it.

When you think about it, however, it’s not that much different than 9 furlong races on 9-furlong racetracks such as Gulfstream or Aqueduct.

The second thing is that the race develops just like any other two turn event in the run down the backstretch: Establish position then try to settle into a rhythmic beat.

The final thing, of course, is the finish line located approximately in the middle of the homestretch. The race ends there, but the jockeys ride through to the “real” finish line—you don’t want horses to learn any bad habits.

And so the second race was won by Real Dingo, the “house horse,” owned by Stronach Stables and handled by Joe Orseno and Daniel Centeno.

The third race attracted some well-bred maiden 3 year olds. This is Gulfstream, and it is January, after all.

Todd Pletcher’s first-time starter took all the money, early and late, of course, and won, of course, by about half the length of the stretch.

Interestingly, the Smart Strike colt, from the Pleasant Colony mare Colonial Minstrel, was bred by prominent horseman Edward P. Evans who passed away last year.

As an homage, owner George Bolton, who first gained national prominence as a member of the Curlin group, named the colt Spring Hill Farm for Evans’ nursery. Cool stuff, classy, too.