- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tall, dark and handsome, Bellamy Road could win a beauty contest. He could ace a talent competition, as well: The Kentucky Derby favorite runs as good as he looks.

Bellamy Road stands atop what is perhaps the strongest Derby field in a decade, a humbly bred colt outdone in star power by his owner, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

Unlike the Yankees, however, Bellamy Road hasn’t long carried the burden of high expectations. He lost in October, changed trainers and was considered a long shot to be entered in Saturday’s 131st running of the Derby.

However, Bellamy Road rocketed to the top after a record 171/2-length victory in the Wood Memorial on April 9, a win that followed a 153/4-length victory March 12 and five months off.

Those performances left Bellamy Road as a modest favorite Saturday at 5-2. Trainer Nick Zito has five horses running in this Derby, and no one thought Bellamy Road would wind up the star of that group — not even Zito.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Zito said of his horse’s performance in the Wood.

Shocked, more like it.

Bellamy Road tied Riva Ridge’s track record of 1:47 for 11/8 mile at Aqueduct, a New York facility at which many of the sport’s legends raced.

Bellamy Road has not trailed in his past two races. His 19 rivals Saturday likely will press him into a compromising fast start, hoping to leave him gasping at the turn for home at the end of the 11/4-mile race.

Trainer Bob Baffert likened Bellamy Road to his 2002 Derby winner, War Emblem, another front-runner — a comparison that brought a hard rebuke from Zito.

“Bob Baffert is very, very good for business,” Zito said. “But, please, we don’t want to go there with War Emblem. I understand what Bob Baffert is trying to do. He gave me a kiss for good luck. But I can’t go there. War Emblem is War Emblem, and Bellamy Road is Bellamy Road.”

Zito can be forgiven for being slightly anxious as the race nears. He erected the “great wall of Zito” to keep at bay the mass of reporters outside his barn, a group that he jokes will disappear next year. Zito, a firm old-school believer that animals sense stress, doesn’t want to transfer his nervousness to the nearby horses.

But the stress is coming.

“The Boss” — Mr. Steinbrenner — is expected to arrive tomorrow. Mr. Steinbrenner has only five losses to show for the 20 years that he has spent chasing the roses at the Derby, including a ninth-place finish in 1997 with Bellamy Road’s sire, Concerto.

Fortunately for Zito, the notoriously hands-on Mr. Steinbrenner doesn’t meddle with his horses in the same manner as he does with his Yankees.

“We’re fine there,” Zito said. “No memos.”

Mr. Steinbrenner’s presence makes the Derby’s broadcaster happy, not edgy.

“We’ll probably get a big audience in Boston rooting for the other 19 horses,” said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports. “George is this year’s exciting story.”

Zito isn’t ready to anoint Bellamy Road as racing’s next star just yet. Too many things can go wrong.

“You’re one step away from nothing,” Zito said. “This game will humble kings. I think we have a great shot. … If you take Afleet Alex, High Limit and the three of Todd Pletcher’s horses and you take our five, that’s a heck of a game. Those guys are not rooting for you. They’re not handing this to us.”

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