LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP and WTIC Staff) _ Nick Zito knows the good part of the
Kentucky Derby as a two-time winner. He also knows the heartbreak
of America’s greatest race.
Zito nearly joined fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert as a
three-time champ last year, when Ice Box overcame traffic trouble
twice only to finish second, beaten 21/2 lengths by Super Saver.
Now, after a winter of ups and downs on the Derby trail, Zito is
back at Churchill Downs with Dialed In, the likely favorite for
Saturday’s 137th Derby.
“There’s a little bit more pressure when you’ve got the
favorite,” he said, standing trackside in between rain showers on
Monday. “As long as everything is going good, I’m OK with it. It’s
flattering to have the favorite.”
That role was all set to go to Uncle Mo until the colt finished
a stunning third in the Wood Memorial, the first loss of his career
and one that turned the Derby into a wide-open race.
“That’s what happens in our business,” Zito said, “as soon as
you fall off, there are not that many people there. His race wasn’t
that bad in the Wood. He’s still the 2-year-old champion and you
got to give him respect.”
Dialed In didn’t exactly dominate his final tuneup, either. He
edged Shackleford by a head to win last month’s Florida Derby,
making him 3 for 4.
“He’s still the only horse who’s won two major races,” Zito
said, noting Dialed In’s first win of the year came in the Holy
“Right now, this is a great horse,” owner Robert LaPenta said
after the Florida Derby.
And Dialed In has prior experience at Churchill Downs, where he
won his first career start by a half-length in November.
Back on Sept. 11, 2001, LaPenta approached Zito at a horse sale
asking how they could get into business together. By then, LaPenta
had been in racing for three years as a partner of Louisville
basketball coach Rick Pitino.
As passionate and outspoken as Zito can be, LaPenta is just the
opposite, which makes him a good client.
“He stays completely out of the training of the horses,” Zito
said. “Most of my owners do the same, but I think because he buys
a lot of horses, you really can’t overmanage because then you
probably get sidetracked.”
Zito and LaPenta are 0 for 4 in their previous attempts to win
the Derby together. They came closest with Ice Box last year. The
Cliff’s Edge finished fifth in 2004, Andromeda’s Hero was eighth in
2005 and Cool Coal Man was 15th in 2008.
Their biggest score since teaming up came in the 2008 Belmont
Stakes, when Da’ Tara spoiled Big Brown’s Triple Crown hopes with a
victory at 38-1 odds.
Zito liked Dialed In when he spotted him at a sale, having
trained the colt’s brother Andromeda’s Hero, who later ran second
to Afleet Alex in the 2005 Belmont Stakes.
Zito bought Dialed In for $475,000 on behalf of LaPenta,
president and CEO of a Stamford company that provides products
to secure personal identities and assets, L-1 Identity Solutions.
Dialed In spent the winter in Florida before flying to
Louisville last weekend. He was joined by Zito, who eschewed a
commercial flight to sit on a bale of hay on the equine charter.
The 63-year-old trainer then rode the horse van that brought Dialed
In from the airport to the track.
“It was cool,” he said, adding that the last time he flew with
a horse was in the days of propeller planes.
If not for the capricious nature of horse racing, Zito might
have had two Derby contenders this year.
He originally bought Stay Thirsty as a yearling for $160,000 on
behalf of LaPenta, who then turned around and sold the horse for a
$340,000 profit in a practice known as pinhooking.
“I didn’t want to lose that horse. Sometimes you can get
burned,” Zito said. “That’s what Bob told me, `That’s the dumbest
thing I ever did in horse racing.”’
The buyer? Mike Repole, who besides Stay Thirsty, will have
Uncle Mo in the Derby.
Repole has said if Uncle Mo isn’t the favorite when the morning
line is set Wednesday, he’ll make him the favorite, meaning the
wealthy former owner of Vitaminwater would bet enough to put his
horse over the top.
“The only thing I wish maybe Mike would do is always remember
there’s 19 others in the race, you got to give them respect, too,”
“Vince Lombardi had a great quote: `Don’t ever underestimate
your opponent.’ That’s something I never do.”