Reflective as ever, Zito eyes a 3rd Kentucky Derby
Nick Zito has trained more than 1,800 winners. His horses will soon eclipse the $100 million mark in earnings. He's a Hall of Famer with an overwhelming number of awards displayed throughout his home, though he painstakingly tries not to notice any of them.
Given all that, think the thrill is waning for the 63-year-old?
Zito is as passionate, as driven, as fiery as ever - all of which was on display earlier this week when his latest star, Dialed In, won the Florida Derby and essentially locked himself into the group of biggest contenders for the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Zito freely says he hasn't trained many like Dialed In, who brings out the full gamut of emotions from his trainer.
''Excuse me for this,'' Zito said in the winner's circle at Gulfstream Park after the Florida Derby, ''but even grown men cry.''
Those who know Zito know that's the case.
He's won the Kentucky Derby twice before, and both times, his reactions may have been the most memorable part of the show. When Strike The Gold delivered in 1991, Zito - his hair considerably darker - thrust both arms skyward, almost defiantly, before turning and hustling from his trackside seat down to see the horse.
And three years later, Zito screamed his always-raspy voice into oblivion, famously shouting, ''I love you God! I love you America! I love my kids! I love everybody!'' as Go For Gin gave him his second Derby crown.
It's been 17 years and 21 entrants in the Run for the Roses since that day, and Zito is still waiting for Derby No. 3.
He might not be waiting much longer.
''I'm big into history and I'm big into our sport, history-wise,'' Zito said. ''But it's not what's on your wall. It's what's in your heart. So I don't care how many things I get. ... I don't look at them as material. I don't look at them as whatever. I'm still the same guy. I'm not going to change. I get the same thrill, no matter what. But these are special days and I'm grateful for that.''
Much can change between now and Derby Day, but the way things look, Dialed In might be the second choice for racing's most famed race behind Uncle Mo, the consensus favorite.
Uncle Mo runs Saturday in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Dialed In won't run again until the Derby.
''We all had a lot on the line here,'' Dialed In's owner, Robert LaPenta, said after the Florida Derby. ''Nick had a lot on the line. Nick loves this horse. I speak to him every morning and I never want to get a phone call from Nick in the morning, because it's not good.''
For the record, Zito did not call LaPenta on Florida Derby day. The horse was fine.
Hours later, he went out and proved just that, making up 14 lengths after immediately going to the far back of the pack before making his now-customary late charge. After erasing an eight-length deficit in the final three furlongs, Dialed In nipped Shackleford by a head.
''Right now, this is a great horse,'' LaPenta said.
And a horse that took a somewhat difficult trip to the Derby, too.
Dialed In didn't even run for the first time until Nov. 12, winning at Churchill Downs. He then won the Grade 3 Holy Bull in January, then lost his next start - an allowance race, no less, after being sent off as the 1-5 favorite in a five-horse field. If there were questions about Dialed In after that outing, they were answered in the Florida Derby.
Churchill, here they come.
''It's a blessing,'' Zito said. ''If Dialed In can get there the way he is now, healthy and everything, he's going to have a heck of a shot.''
As an added bonus, Dialed In can soothe the disappointment Zito had on this exact path a year ago.
Ice Box won the Florida Derby last year and nearly got it done at the Kentucky Derby, ultimately settling for second after getting caught in traffic not once, but twice.
But Zito insists he's not thinking about last year or any other. He compares Dialed in to Strike The Gold, which might be the highest compliment Zito can give a horse.
''This is very, very sweet,'' Zito said. ''Very great. Very gratifying.''
As he spoke, Zito looked down at his ringing cell phone and apologized for the interruption.
He had to take the call. It was from a Saudi Arabian prince. That's how things go for trainers with big-time Derby contenders. Everyone wants to talk.
''It's not always fun and games and it's not always great times,'' Zito said. ''But this is a great time right now, you know?''