As the cornerstone race at his favorite racetrack, it is no wonder that Nick Zito loves the Travers. In fact, no trainer has started more horses than the popular 64-year-old conditioner in the $1 million race. All told, Zito has tightened the girth on 26 Travers horses over the years, the first coming back in 1980 with Little Lenny. It must have stung for the native New Yorker to be left out of the Travers party last year without a starter. The year before, he had three horses in the starting gate, led by Fly Down, who lost the Mid-Summer Derby by a dirty nose to Afleet Express. I have little doubt that Zito will do everything possible to return to the race in which he has only won once, and in a talented newcomer named Easter Gift, I believe he may come with a horse that can get him lucky number two. Easter Gift is a lightly raced son of Hard Spun, out of the Allen’s Prospect mare, Angel Gift. This past Sunday, the Robert LaPenta owned bay colt came running late to finish second in the Grade 3 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park. After running well of the pace for much of the race, Easter Gift ran a better race than it might appear at first glance. The only horse with any real rally in the Pegasus, he had the difficult task of going after the three other favorites in the race, who were all near a moderate early pace. With absolutely no cover to assist his rally, Easter Gift launched his late run from a solitary position on the backstretch. From there he sustained a half mile run that consistently ate into the leader’s advantage. Swinging out in the lane around the leaders, he kept coming before just running out of time to finish a diminishing neck behind the winner, Le Bernardin. Not bad for a horse who had did not make his first lifetime start until April the 7th.
A first-out winner at Gulfstream Park, I remember being struck by Easter Gift that day. Eleventh early on, in a field of twelve, the Zito charge made up tons of ground on the turn and kept pouring it on down the lane to get up in a six furlong race in the slop by a neck. It was extra impressive because it looked like the runner-up was not slowing down at all, as the pair finished seven lengths clear of the third horse. Both of those horses, Macho Whiskey and Small Token came back to break their maiden in their next respective start.
After his maiden win, Easter Gift headed north where he boasts a serious of strong workouts over the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga. He has left Saratoga twice since, most recently in the Pegasus, but before that he made his second start in an allowance race at Parx. That day, May 22, he broke much better than he did in his debut, and led the field all the way around the track to win by 2 ½ lengths in the sharp time of 1:22 4/5 for the seven panels.
So on Sunday there may have been no Bodemeister or Union Rags to deal with, but Easter Gift was a very inexperienced horse running against a field where most of the others already had stakes experience. He may not have won, but the performance was big and gives every indication that he is a horse with a very bright future, and especially bright in the hands of a master like Nick Zito. He will need a little more experience before the Travers, and whether that happens in the Haskell, Jim Dandy, or a smaller stakes, he is clearly a horse to put on your early Travers list.
Perhaps Easter Gift will be Zito’s second winner in the Travers, or his sixth horse to run second in the most important three-year-old race of the summer. Then again, maybe he will prove not good enough come August 25, but if you ask me, this horse is quickly moving in the right direction. If anyone deserves a second score in the Travers, it is Nick Zito, and I believe that Easter Gift may be just the horse to get it done.