- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky — All the big stars come to Louisville for Kentucky Derby week.

Chubby Checker is scheduled to perform “The Twist” today at the 50th Pegasus Parade celebrating the Derby. And Mr. “I’m nobody’s show pony” himself, Michael Jordan, is going to be a show pony at the ultimate horse race. He is scheduled to attend his first Kentucky Derby and will be a guest at the Grand Gala, a black-tie ball on Derby night.

But the arrival everyone is anticipating is that force of nature known as George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, who has become the star of the show because he owns the favorite in this year’s Derby.

Reporters asked Nick Zito, who is training Steinbrenner’s horse — Bellamy Road — for this race, when George would arrive. “I think Friday, but I’m not sure,” said Zito, who is the focus of attention because he is training five of the scheduled 20 horses in the Derby (actually, he is training four horses and Boss George’s horse).

The Boss may be missing. He was supposed to be in St. Petersburg, Fla., Tuesday night to watch his team take an 11-4 beating at the hands of the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but according to the Associated Press, he was not seen at the ballpark. For all we know, he already could be in town, sleeping in the stables here at Churchill Downs with maybe his only hope for a champion this year.

The losing ways of the $200million Yankees (11-16 going into last night’s game against the Devil Rays) have only served to accentuate Boss George’s role in the Derby. It is as if the worse his baseball team does, the more pressure there will be on Bellamy Road to win and deliver Boss George’s first Kentucky Derby victory.

If that is the case, Boss George probably won’t be allowed anywhere near his horse, because Zito believes horses can pick up on their owner’s vibes.

“Good owners make good karma and make good things happen,” he said. “They take the pressure off, and I really believe that transmits to the horses.”

Take the pressure off? The Boss? The owner who puts pressure on elevator operators and parking attendants at Yankee Stadium?

“The Boss, as you would call him, this is an outlet for him,” Zito said. “He gets pleasure from horse racing. His principal business is the New York Yankees, but he gets pleasure from this. He and his family put a lot of time, money and energy into this with that [Kinsman Farm] they have in Ocala [Fla.]. They are very sincere in what they do in racing, but this is still an outlet.”

If anyone needs an outlet these days, it is Boss George, who already has had one mini back-page New York tabloid explosion and probably would have had more if not for Bellamy Road, who turned in a stunning performance in the Wood Memorial several weeks ago, winning by 171/2 lengths and tying the track record at Aqueduct for a mile and an eighth, making him the favorite going into the 131st Derby.

Zito said he is not paying closer attention to the fortunes of the Yankees as the race draws closer.

“I don’t look at the box score and think he will be in a bad mood,” said Zito, a New Yorker and an avid baseball fan. “The Yankees are the Yankees. I know they are not doing well, but they are still the Yankees. But I do look at the box scores because I love baseball. I am a sports fan, and I absolutely love baseball.”

As much as Zito would love to separate the Yankees and racing, he can’t. A horse named Sis City is the favorite to win Friday’s prestigious Kentucky Oaks. One of the owners of Sis City is Yankees manager Joe Torre. He won’t be here because the Yankees are scheduled to be in New York to play the Athletics.

“Fortunately, post time on Friday will be during batting practice, and I’ll be able to watch on television,” Torre said.

That is, unless Boss George issues a memo prohibiting watching television during batting practice. (What if Torre’s horse wins and Boss George’s doesn’t? Talk about adding insult to injury.)

Zito said he hasn’t gotten any of the Boss’s infamous dictates. “No memos,” he said. “We’re fine.”

Michael Dickinson got a memo, though. The Maryland trainer had been working with Bellamy Road and winning with the horse. But Boss George, who has had four horses in the Derby but none as highly touted as Bellamy Road, fired Dickinson and hired Zito in January.

“Michael Dickinson does not know what Nick knows about the Derby,” Boss George told the Chicago Tribune, referring to Zito’s two Derby winners.

Here’s what longtime observers of Boss George know — if his Yankees keep losing and his horse doesn’t win here in Louisville, the next outlet the owner will be looking for will be an electrical one to stick his finger in.

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