Nick Zito has proudly matriculated at the old school of Thoroughbred training, and the traditional way of conditioning horses has served him well during his Hall of Fame career. Yet, he was smart enough to reject convention while training DIALED IN (Mineshaft) and acknowledge divine intervention.
"He's a gift from God," Zito said with a measure of reverence in his voice.
Dialed In truly doesn't fit the mold of a Zito-trained Triple Crown hopeful -- the one-step-in-front-of-the-other, one-race-at-a-time kind of horse. He is a jump-in-with-all-four-feet, take-the-fast-track-to-success type of colt.
With only three races as experience, Dialed In will be among the favorites in Sunday's $1 million Florida Derby (G1).
"It's amazing what he's done. It is amazing," said Zito, who saddled Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994) for Kentucky Derby (G1) victories.
"I'm still a firm believer in developing horses. I'm still a believer in that. It's important to get the seasoning. But the modern-day owner has a different philosophy, and a lot of times he's proven right. You see these horses break their maidens and win stakes. Lightly raced horses do things they never used to do."
Dialed In is an exceptional young horse who made it clear that he had a big future when he broke his maiden at Churchill Downs last November with a last-to-first dash through traffic in the stretch. Washed out of an allowance race in mid-January, Dialed In made the jump from maiden to graded stakes company for his second start and prevailed over a group of considerably more seasoned colts in the Holy Bull (G3) by 1 1/2 lengths with another strong stretch run under jockey Julien Leparoux.
"It's a blessing how amazing this horse is -- to do what this horse has done, to break his maiden at 6 1/2 furlongs and, two months later, win the Holy Bull against proven horses," said Zito, who visited the Florida Derby winner's circle with High Fly (2005) and Ice Box (2010).
Dialed In was not as successful in his final prep for the Florida Derby, a 1 1/8-mile allowance race against older horses. Racing closer to the pace due to a pedestrian early pace, he closing kick was less explosive and fell a half-length short of catching older stablemate Equestrio (Elusive Quality). His trainer, though, was hardly devastated by the second-place finish.
"It was no easy race. He ran against four-year-olds, and if you look at it, it's hard for three-year-olds to beat four-year-olds this time of year," Zito said.
"The main thing is, he went the last eighth in the race in 12-and-change at a mile and an eighth. What's the odds he won't do well if he goes 12-and-change in the Florida Derby? None."
Dialed In's drop-back-and-make-one-run style could be blamed for his loss to Equestrio, and Zito wouldn't necessarily disagree.
"It was against the grain. He certainly got a lot out of the race. Some people say, 'Oh, he needs a fast pace.' So what? That's fine. So he needs a fast pace. He'll get it most of the time," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "That should be the least of our worries – a fast pace."
Dialed In, of course, was meant to be a good horse when Robert LaPenta put up $475,000 for him at the 2009 Fasig Tipton select yearling sale at Saratoga.
"It's what's inside of them. 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," Zito said.
"We're just coaching them. Just ask these coaches -- if they don't have the players, forget it."