Triple Crown season is well and truly under way in the States and few within the industry, if any, are as well-placed to comment on the big-race series than Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito.

New York native Zito, 76, has pretty much seen it all during his 50-plus years in the sport. Having started out in 1972, training his first winner that year at the long-defunct Liberty Bell Park in Pennsylvania, his list of accomplishments includes five victories in Triple Crown races and two strikes at the Breeders’ Cup, high points in a career that has to date yielded over 2,000 winners.

In a major change to this year’s format, the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, will be run over a mile and a quarter – two furlongs less than its traditional distance of a mile and a  half – owing to its temporary move to Saratoga while Belmont Park undergoes a $455 million redevelopment. The contest is not due to return home until 2026.

The switch has caused some controversy and Zito, who captured the race with Birdstone in 2004 and Da’Tara in 2008 – two editions that attracted mammoth crowds and TV audiences – is far from pleased with the reduction in distance whilst at the same time appreciating the reasoning behind the decision.

He says: “The Belmont Stakes – its known as the ‘Test of Champions’ – is a mile and a half race. But now there’s no Belmont Park so where do you go? If you move it to Aqueduct, not many people are going to go there.

“If you want to show off racing, you go to Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar. You put it in a Coca-Cola bottle, and you say, ‘Here’s what our sport’s all about’. You just sold it around America and around the world. If you go to Aqueduct these days, that’s a pretty hard sell.

“The race should stay at a mile and a half. But in this particular time and era, they figured this was the best they could do for racing. I think it’s sad.

“The problem you have is that the Belmont has to be in New York. The powers that be figured it would be sold out at Saratoga and it would certainly not have sold out at Aqueduct.”

With the massive investment in Belmont Park, unloved Aqueduct looks to be on borrowed time, set to join a list that includes Arlington Park and Golden Gate Fields – which still continues, for the time being at least – as a former racecourse.

Aqueduct may be on the way out yet it was the track that ignited Zito’s love for the sport.

“We lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn but then moved to Queens and that’s where I first encountered horseracing because we only lived a mile from Aqueduct,” Zito says.

“If no-one’s going to the track then it sure looks like its days are numbered.”

Zito’s two Belmont victories garnered significant attention in the US media and around the world – in both races his runners were longshots and thwarted the Triple Crown dreams of rivals, namely Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown four years later, each coming into the final leg having captured the Derby and Preakness.

Whereas Da’Tara led from the gate in his Belmont victory as hot favourite Big Brown finished tailed off, Birdstone’s success proved far more dramatic. Smarty Jones, partnered by Stewart Elliott, held a significant lead on the turn for home and looked set to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 until the Zito-trained colt, racing for owner-breeder Marylou Whitney, overhauled him near the line under Edgar Prado.

Had the 2004 renewal been staged at a mile and quarter, Birdstone would not have landed the spoils and instead America would have been celebrating its first Triple Crown hero for 26 years.

Distance matters, it seems.

“They blamed the jockey on Smarty Jones,” Zito recalls. “That was the craziest thing I ever heard. “If a horse has a four-length lead turning for home – in any kind of race – nine times out ten they’re going to win.

But the Whitney blood was what did it in the last quarter of a mile. We ran him down because of the breeding and that’s the test of a champion.

“Yours truly and of course Marylou Whitney and her husband John Hendrickson were very fortunate because the last time there were 120,000 people at the Belmont Stakes was in 2004 for Birdstone – it was one of the largest live sporting events ever in New York.”

This year’s Kentucky Derby increased in value by 67% to $5 million, meaning more horses than ever tried to qualify for one of 20 starting places through the points system, introduced in 2012 to replace the previous method based on earnings.

Zito, who captured the ‘Run for the Roses’ in 1991 with Strike The Gold, doubling up with Go For Gin three years later, may be light on Classic ammunition but he will be cheering on the two runners supplied by former assistant Danny Gargan in the Derby, Dornoch and Society  Man. Another who learnt his trade under Zito, Jorge Abreu, was forced to scratch Jody’s Pride from the Kentucky Oaks.

“They’re excellent trainers,” says Zito, who sent out a then record-equalling 11 Triple Crown runners in 2005.

“I’m extremely proud of Jorge and Danny, and I like them both as people too.”

He continues: “The Kentucky Derby is still the greatest two minutes in sport, but it has become an event. I see horses every single year and as soon as they qualify – it doesn’t matter if they’re 9,000-1 – they’re running in the Derby. The odds don’t matter.

“I used to concentrate on [prep] races like the Wood Memorial, Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. One time I was in a bar, and someone asked me I’d ever won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park [won by Birdstone in 2003]. I said I’d won it five times. He almost fell off his stool!”

Zito accepted an invitation in 2023 from Robert DiPippo to work for his ZD Racing management company, yet he continues to train thoroughbreds. Stable numbers may be a fraction of what they once were, however his passion for the sport burns as brightly as ever.

“The big dream when I started out was to win the Kentucky Derby,” he says. “I don’t want to go out this way – I’d like to go out on a high note. That’s why I keep fighting.

“If someone wants to call me, I’ll always talk to them and we’ll go from there. God willing I’ve gone tons of energy. So, let’s keep it going.”