It was last spring and a dark bay colt named Dialed In had just won the 2011 Florida Derby. Nearly all the winners of the annual Florida Derby are aimed at the Kentucky Derby by their owners and trainers. That was the plan for the impressive looking Dialed In.
His trainer is the raspy-voiced, born-to-racing Nick Zito, a New Yorker by way of Norman Rockwell.
Nick Zito is usually found somewhere around the edges at both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He’ll be in Louisville with one of the 20 starters in the Kentucky Derby. But he won’t have one of the favorites or even one of the more talked about entries. And he won’t win.
He’ll be at the Preakness with one of the 12 starters. Zito might bring a different horse to Baltimore than the one he ran in the Kentucky Derby. His stable area won’t be a crush of reporters or television cameras because he doesn’t have one of the favorites or more written about entries. And he won’t win.
But Zito has found an abundance of success on his home grounds in New York at the Belmont Stakes. It’s the final leg of the Triple Crown series. It’s 12 grinding furlongs of energy-sapping (except for Secretariat) grind for three-year-olds.
Zito often has an entry in the Belmont Stakes, held in the neighborhood where he and his other race-loving brothers grew up. Attention from the media comes to Nick Zito in the Belmont Stakes.
But back to last spring and the air of lightness Dialed In’s win in the Florida Derby had created. Zito would be taking his near-black horse to Louisville. And he would have to be ready for the press because he would be the favorite over a field that had not distinguished itself with deed or glory.
Dialed In had been bought by Robert LaPenta for $475,000 at a Fasig-Tipton yearling sale at Saratoga in 2009. He only raced once as a two-year-old. He had won that early effort but it had brought him and owner LaPenta a $28,000 pay day.
When Dialed In’s three-year-old campaign would open, he would need plenty more money in order to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Some of that needed stakes money was gleaned from a win in the Holy Bull Stakes in Florida. Dialed In had actually begun his three-year-old season in late January beating the field in the Grade III Holy Bull. He had moved from his one and only maiden special weight race to the next year and had beaten a field of other Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
Even after just two races, Zito could see the Triple Crown series more clearly even though it was way off in the future. His sights were set on the first race of that series, the Kentucky Derby.
An allowance/optional claiming race came during the first week in March. And Dialed In was only second. Zito still was aimed for the Triple Crown series.
A few days into April, Dialed In was entered in the Grade I Florida Derby. He made an “A+” when he defeated that field and increased his earnings so substantially that his place was solidified in The Derby field.
Zito wasn’t made hoarse by all the interviews he had to stand for or by the hundreds of questions he had to answer in the lead-up to Derby Day. He was already hoarse. It was the way he talked in his folksy (if somebody from New York City can be folksy) way.
Zito had few people asking for his time when the 2011 Kentucky Derby had been run. His Dialed In had run eighth as the betting favorite.
Owner LaPenta was taking Zito and his disappointing colt to Baltimore. It seemed that Frank Stronach, the owner of Gulfstream Park (home of the Holy Bull Stakes and the Florida Derby) had offered a $5.5 million bonus to any thoroughbred who could win both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby and then come to the Maryland track (Pimlico) that he also owned and win the Preakness Stakes.
Dialed In and Zito were in Baltimore at the behest of LaPenta trying to reel in the huge bonus-money check.
Joked Zito, “Mr. LaPenta is certainly thinking about the bonus. He pays the bills. My staff and the feed guys are excited. There will be a lot of guys rooting for us in the race.”
There was no bonus. The high-pitched screams and all the rooting by Zito’s workers hadn’t brought a win in the Preakness. Dialed In was only fourth.
In the aftermath of the Preakness, a small bone chip was detected in a knee. A successful operation removed the bone fragment. But Dialed In didn’t race again last year.
This year, it was a March 3 return to racing for the bay. In an allowance/optional claiming race, he was only fourth.
An examination found another small bone fragment in the same knee that had seen the earlier surgery. “It’s just a sliver,” said Zito, “not nearly the same type of situation we had to deal with last spring.”
It is expected Dialed In will miss two months while recuperating. He could resume training and be back to racing again in the late summer.
Zito didn’t have a horse in last weekend’s Belmont Stakes.
And his training routine for Dialed In hasn’t resumed as of now.
Such are the fortunes of thoroughbred racing.
Zito understands the troubles that can lurk around the shedrow corner. His close-cropped hair may be snow white and his voice may be gravelly . . . but it was heredity and not horse racing that dropped those two physical characteristics on him.