Dialed In charges to win Florida Derby
Nick Zito was a bundle of nerves in the paddock, and his eyes were filling with tears while watching Dialed In run.
To Zito, those are good signs.
Dialed In made a late charge — his signature move — to beat 69-1 long shot Shackleford and win one of the biggest preps on the 3-year-old calendar at Gulfstream Park on Sunday. He ran 1-1/8 miles in 1 minute, 50.07 seconds to take home $600,000 of the Grade 1 race's $1 million purse.
''The last time I got this emotional was 20 years ago with Strike The Gold,'' Zito said.
That was his first Kentucky Derby winner. Barring any health issues, Dialed In will be in the Derby as well, possibly the second choice behind widely touted favorite-to-be Uncle Mo.
''I wouldn't trade Dialed In for any horse on the Derby trail,'' owner Robert LaPenta said.
Neither would Zito.
The Hall of Famer is just the second trainer to win the Florida Derby three times, joining John Veitch, who did it in 1978, '85 and '88. And the last trainer to win Gulfstream's biggest race in consecutive years was Horace Jones, way back in 1957 and '58. Zito won it last year with Ice Box, who finished second in the Run for the Roses.
Dialed In will aim to do him one better.
''This is a gift from God. Trust me. This is very special to do what he does,'' Zito said. ''Is he Secretariat? Of course not. But guess what? He comes from the same place. He comes from the same place. That's all I can say. He's an amazing horse.''
Dialed In returned $7.80 for a win bet. Shackleford, who went to the lead early and nearly stayed there until the end, was second. To Honor and Serve held on for third.
Ridden by Julien Leparoux, Dialed In has three wins in four career starts, with earnings of $879,206. His career started with a maiden win at Churchill Downs on Nov. 12, a race that started to build some buzz around the horse.
That will continue for another five weeks, until he heads back to Churchill, almost certainly now as one of the major contenders for the Triple Crown season.
''He just has an incredible heart,'' LaPenta said. ''And unbelievable talent.''
LaPenta called this Florida Derby ''a mini-Kentucky Derby,'' which was understandable. Of the eight horses in the field, at least four are considered likely for the Kentucky Derby on May 7.
Some of them looked far from ready on Sunday.
Soldat, sent off as the 3-2 favorite, broke well from the inside post, just as he did on the way to a win at Gulfstream in the Fountain of Youth. But unlike that day, Soldat didn't get to the front. He spent his race in the middle of the pack and settled for fifth, his first time off the board in eight career starts.
''He just didn't fire his 'A' race today,'' trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said.
Flashpoint, whose connections weren't sure until the midpoint of last week if he would run in the Florida Derby, had a wide trip and finished fourth. Stay Thirsty never fired, finishing seventh, barely a factor at any point in the race.
''He got a good trip,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said. ''No excuses.''
The day belonged to Zito instead.
He fidgeted awkwardly and took deep breaths while getting his shoulders rubbed as Dialed In made his way around the ring. Leparoux tried to calm him down with a quick thumbs-up, after which Zito just nodded.
Those butterflies likely didn't dissipate in the race's opening moments, when Shackleford and To Honor and Serve made their way to the lead while Dialed In was more than 10 lengths off the pace. With three furlongs to run, Dialed In made his move.
In the nick of time, too.
''I always thought he was one of the top 3-year-olds in America,'' Zito said. ''He certainly proved it today. . . . Just a special horse.''