Robert V. LaPenta's DIALED IN (Mineshaft) got the fast pace he wanted to set up his late kick in Sunday's $1 million Florida Derby (G1), but the deep closer had to pull out all the stops to catch the 68-1 longest shot on the board, Shackleford (Forestry). Patiently ridden by Julien Leparoux, the Nick Zito trainee got up in time to capture the season's deepest and most contentious Kentucky Derby (G1) prep.
"I haven't felt this emotional in 20 years since Strike the Gold," Zito said, alluding to his 1991 Kentucky Derby winner.
"We had a plan," Zito added. "Julien did what we asked him to (to rate off pace). It was a gamble with the speed bias, but I knew he was capable of running this type of race. I knew he could do this if he stayed healthy.
"He's amazing and I'm blessed. Once he got in position (to rally) I felt good. I've thought all along he was one of the top three-year-olds in the country, and he proved it today."
As expected, Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner and 3-2 favorite Soldat (War Front) took back from his rail post, eschewing the front-running role this time. But the Hutcheson S. (G2) winner Flashpoint (Smoke Glacken), who was stepping up to two turns for the first time, didn't take the pacesetting job.
Instead, To Honor and Serve (Bernardini) flashed speed into the first turn, only to defer to the hustling Shackleford. Carving out honest splits of :23 1/5, :46 1/5 and 1:10 3/5, Shackleford was prompted by To Honor and Serve, while Flashpoint was forwardly placed in third. Arch Traveler (Sky Mesa) raced in fourth through the opening half-mile, followed by Soldat, Gotham S. (G3) winner Stay Thirsty (Bernardini) and Bowman's Causeway (Giant's Causeway), and Dialed In, the 5-2 second choice, was reserved in his favorite spot, last of all.
Despite the testing pace, Shackleford was still full of run turning for home, and was clearly a different horse from the one who finished a remote fifth in the Fountain of Youth. He repelled a short-lived bid from To Honor and Serve, and opened up by two lengths through a mile in 1:36 1/5. His pursuers were sputtering, with one ominous exception.
Dialed In had commenced his patented rally on the far turn, and straightening into the stretch, took aim on the unheralded leader. A determined Shackleford dug in and threatened to spring the massive upset, but Dialed In was relentless. Collaring the longshot in the final strides, Dialed In thrust his head in front and completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 on Gulfstream Park's fast track, paying $7.80, $4.80 and $4.
Shackleford rewarded his loyalists with mutuels of $36.60 and $15.20 for his monster effort.
"That's a real tough beat," trainer Dale Romans said. "He ran super. I'm very proud of him. If $200,000 (the runner-up's share of the purse) is enough to get into the (Kentucky) Derby, I think we'll have to go. He's a horse that keeps improving.
"We drew a line in his last race. We had no excuse for it. He came back and showed us he's better than his last race showed. He just dug back in and galloped out real strong. He's doing everything right."
Another 6 3/4 lengths adrift in third was To Honor and Serve. Flashpoint checked in fourth, 2 1/4 lengths clear of Soldat, who outfinished Arch Traveler by a nose for fifth. After another 6 1/4-length gap came Stay Thirsty, and Bowman's Causeway was eased.
Soldat's worst career effort left trainer Kiaran McLaughlin at a loss.
"(Jockey Alan Garcia) said he just didn't fire his 'A' race today," McLaughlin said. "He didn't have much horse when he pulled him out. He took a lot of dirt, but you're going to have to take dirt, so we'll regroup and look him over."
Dialed In had first stamped himself as a major-league talent when winning his debut at Churchill Downs last November. Overcoming a slew of rookie mistakes, he rallied furiously to prevail by a half-length in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden. He will now return there as a major contender for the 137th Run for the Roses, with a sparkling 4-3-1-0 mark and $879,206 in his bankroll.
"I've been around long enough to know how special he is with just four races -- from one 6 1/2-furlong maiden race as a two-year-old," Zito said.
His Florida Derby victory was a training triumph for Hall of Famer Zito, who called an audible earlier in the season with his highly-regarded colt. Dialed In was supposed to make his second career start in a January 21 allowance at Gulfstream, but Zito opted to scratch when the track came up sloppy, and watched from the sidelines as Soldat romped. Denied his chance to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles that day, Dialed In came back nine days later in the January 30 Holy Bull S. (G3) at a one-turn mile, where he uncorked an impressive last-to-first victory.
Zito could have stuck to his original road map and entered Dialed In in the February 26 Fountain of Youth, but he didn't like the timing from the Holy Bull. The horseman needed to find another 1 1/8-mile prep for the Florida Derby, and he got an allowance to fill on March 6, partly by running his four-year-old Equestrio (Elusive Quality). The short field, with no pace, didn't suit Dialed In's tastes, and Equestrio put the race away with a well-timed move. Nevertheless, Dialed In likely learned a few things in his first try around two turns, closing strongly for second and opening up on the gallop-out. Those lessons were put to good use Sunday.
"I think his last race really helped him today," Leparoux said. "I loved his last race. It was a very good learning race. He learned to run between horses and take dirt in his face and it all paid off today."
Zito took a similar view of the colt's only loss.
"Even when he got beat by Equestrio, a good four-year-old, it was like a Grade 3 race," Zito said. "And then today to beat horses that have won races like the Remsen (G2) (To Honor and Serve) and Fountain of Youth, you just can't do what he's done."
Bred by W.S. Farish, Madeleine Pickens and Skara Glen Stables in Kentucky, Dialed In was purchased by LaPenta's Whitehorse Stables for $475,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling. He is out of the Grade 2-placed Miss Doolittle (Storm Cat), whose other offspring include stakes winner Broadway Gold (Seeking the Gold), the stakes-placed Mambo Master (Kingmambo), an unnamed juvenile colt by Ghostzapper and a newborn filly by Curlin.
Miss Doolittle is herself a half-sister to current Irish stakes hero Samuel Morse (Danehill Dancer), runner-up in last year's Railway S. (Ire-G2) and Anglesey S. (Ire-G3) and third in the Futurity S. (Ire-G2). Miss Doolittle is herself a daughter of Eliza (Mt. Livermore), the champion two-year-old filly of 1992 who went on to finish second in the 1993 Kentucky Oaks (G1). This is also the family of 1991 Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner, Dinard (Strawberry Road [Aus]), and more recently, Run It (Cherokee Run), hero of the 2010 Berkeley S. (G3), and Spacy Tracy (Awesome Again), who captured last November's Top Flight H. (G2).
Zito and LaPenta were teaming up to win the Florida Derby for the second straight year, having connected with Ice Box here in 2010.
They are the first owner/trainer tandem to score back-to-back wins in the Florida Derby since Calumet Farm and Jimmy Jones won with Gen. Duke and Tim Tam in 1957-58. The highly-touted Gen. Duke was scratched with a foot injury on the morning of the 1957 Kentucky Derby, but Tim Tam won the Roses in 1958.
Could another tale of two stablemates unfold in 2011? Ice Box finished a hard-charging second in the 2010 Run for the Roses, and Dialed In will try to go one better.
"We've been to the (Kentucky) Derby several times," LaPenta said, "and look forward to doing it again. We almost won it with Ice Box, but it does feel special to finish second."