Nick Zito is shedding tears.
When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, that’s a pretty good thing.
Zito, with two Kentucky Derby wins under his belt, is one of the most successful Derby trainers of the past 30 years. He is one of the most popular figures in the current Derby era because of his easy manner with fans and his obvious, of often-stated, reverence for the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs and its signature race on the first Saturday in May.
No hidden emotions
But fans also love Nick Zito because he never hesitates to share his emotions. Video of Zito’s reactions as his Derby winners Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994) hit the finish line are on my personal highlight reel, and those of many other Derby fans.
But after those two wins in four years, Nick Zito is 0-for-the Derby – and he’s had some pretty good shots. The favored Bellamy Road was among five Derby entrants saddled by Zito in 2005, but a seventh-place finish by the favorite was the best Zito could manage that day as 50-1 shot Giacomo rolled to a surprise win.
Ice Box second
Zito finished second last year with Ice Box, who ran the race of his life and, with a little racing luck, might have run well enough to overhaul Super Saver and Derby magician Calvin Borel that day. But that is the best finish Zito has managed since Go for Gin’s win in the mud in 1994.
But now Zito is heading back to Louisville with a horse that has moved him to tears. Those are not post-Derby tears. These were shed five weeks before the 2011 Run for the Roses.
The horse is Dialed In.
The son of Horse of the Year Mineshaft rallied from last on a speed-favoring track to run down 68-1 longshot Shackleford by a head to win Sunday’s $1 million Florida Derby. It was the third win in four races for Dialed In and Zito, who had labeled the colt a “gift from God” in pre-race conversation, shed a few tears after Dialed In rallied to get the win.
“I’m a blessed guy, and I can’t thank God enough,” Zito said. “I haven’t been this emotional since Strike the Gold. It’s a great game, and once in a while you get a special horse, and he is special.”
It started here
Dialed In first turned heads in his November debut at Churchill Downs in a 6 1/2 furlong maiden race in which Zito’s colt did almost everything wrong and still managed to win. He did not return to competition until the end of January, when he rallied from last to win the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes. His next outing against older horses saw him lose to 4-year-old stablemate Equestrio in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race that sent some supporters scurrying for leaping space from the Dialed In bandwagon, but it set the inexperienced colt up well for this win in the Florida Derby.
That race will be Dialed In’s final prep for the Kentucky Derby, and the performance sent his odds plummeting in last week’s final pool of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager. He was 10-1 in the Derby Future bet when the field broke from the starting gate, and had dropped to 5-1 by the time pool closed about 15 minutes after the race was declared official.
But if you are a Dialed In fan, there is a chance you will get him on Derby Day at odds that should make you smile. In the eyes of some racing media and handicappers, Dialed In wins, but he never runs fast enough to make them happy.
The Beyer Speed Figure assigned to his Florida Derby victory was only 93. Uncle Mo has two Beyer numbers in his four race career – a 102 for his career debut at Saratoga and a 108 for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win at Churchill Downs – that Dialed In has not come close to approaching. After his lone career loss, one handicapper told me he felt the race “exposed Dialed In as the fraud that he is.”
So, it’s safe to say that the ranks of racing fans, handicappers and media are somewhat divided on the merits of Dialed In. For his admirers, that’s fine. The healthy skepticism might drive his odds up a little on Derby Day.
Suited for Derby
But this much is clear: Dialed In wins. He has a running style suited for the long homestretch at Churchill Downs, a win over the track on which the Kentucky Derby will be run, and he figures to get the rapid and contested pace in the Derby that would give Dialed In his best chance to succeed May 7.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see Dialed In flying through the homestretch, with Zito cheering wildly for this “special horse” from his box seat on Derby Day.
Numbers and speed figures are clearly something to consider when evaluating Derby talent. Nick Zito knows it takes more than numbers to win the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s what’s inside of them.,” Zito said. “We’re not the answer, trust me. It’s the horses. He’s by Mineshaft, out of a good mare. It’s a gift from God.
“We’re just coaching them. Just ask these coaches. If they don’t have the players, forget it.”
And Zito believes he has a player that can deliver.