With his victory in Sunday's Florida Derby (G1), DIALED IN (Mineshaft) will bring momentum into this year's Kentucky Derby (G1). The Florida Derby was the most important Derby prep to date and Dialed In notched his first win at two turns with another stirring late run. He's trained by a two-time Derby winner, Nick Zito, a Hall of Famer who lights up the Derby atmosphere with his positive energy, summoning all the mojo he can with tales of lore and divine intervention.
"He's a gift from God," Zito says with a measure of reverence in his voice.
Dialed In has performed well at Churchill Downs, impressively winning his career debut last November. He runs last to first with an explosive kick. Owner Robert LaPenta and Zito came so close last year with Ice Box (Pulpit), narrowly missing following a furious stretch rally, and Ice Box also captured the Florida Derby. But the 2010 Derby runner-up isn't in the same class of Dialed In, according to Zito.
"It's a blessing how amazing this horse is," Zito noted. "I've had a lot of great horses, but with this particular horse there's something about him, the horse's courage, the way he is.
"He's amazing and I'm blessed."
Dialed In figures to be the second choice in the Derby regardless of what happens in the remaining preps. His popularity will continue to rise in the coming weeks if he trains well, as expected, in preparation for the ultimate goal. Forget the Breeders' Cup or any other races; it's all about winning the Kentucky Derby for Zito. And with only four races to his credit, Dialed In generates the sentiment that the best is yet to come. Zito believes the "special colt" will take him back to the promised land on Derby Day.
The probable Derby favorite, undefeated juvenile champion UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie), will receive his final tune-up in Saturday's Wood Memorial (G1) at Aqueduct. There are no graded stakes winners among his nine rivals, only questionable three-year-olds. But the competition isn't as bad as the Illinois Derby (G3) field, which drew four maidens. The 9-2 second choice on the morning line, EL GRAYLING (El Prado [Ire]), was eased at 80-1 in the Fountain of Youth (G2).
Saturday's Santa Anita Derby (G1) will be an important prep for JAYCITO (Victory Gallop), who highlights a 10-horse field due to the withdrawal of the injured Premier Pegasus (Fusaichi Pegasus).
The Derby is four weeks from Saturday.
Dialed In was in no hurry leaving the starting gate and was immediately guided over to the rail to save ground in the eight-horse field, five-to-six lengths behind his nearest rival during the opening five-eighths of a mile. The rest were all bunched up in a pack, with SHACKLEFORD (Forestry) surprisingly leading the way at 68-1 with a short advantage.
Shackleford broke his maiden wire to wire in his second career start at Churchill Downs last November. Freshened for a little more than two months, he reappeared at Gulfstream Park in a nine-furlong entry-level allowance on February 5, winning by a length in front-running fashion. But with relatively low Early Pace numbers, it wasn't surprising to see him switch to rating tactics in his stakes debut, the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) on February 26. Shackleford recorded a non-threatening fifth, beaten 23 1/2 lengths.
Nobody could have expected the speed he displayed in the Florida Derby, leading the way through early splits in :23 1/5, :46 1/5 and 1:10 3/5. The pace was hot and Shackleford's E1 and E2 Pace figures -- 102 and 112 -- were easily career bests.
Hutcheson (G2) winner FLASHPOINT (Pomeroy) was the expected pacesetter, but he broke outwardly from post 8 and jockey Cornelio Velasquez made little attempt to hustle his mount to the front. Flashpoint traveled wide into the first turn and settled into a stalking position in third, about a length back of Shackleford, for the run down the backstretch.
TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bernardini) received a perfect trip in second and appeared set for a serious assault entering the far turn before coming up woefully short in the final furlongs, finishing third with no visible excuse. It was a 6 3/4-length gap from runner-up Shackleford. With his breeding and two-year-old class, To Honor and Serve rated as a top Derby contender entering 2011, but his stock has dropped precipitously. Trainer Bill Mott will look to regroup this summer if his colt comes up empty once again at Churchill Downs.
Shackleford, To Honor and Serve and Flashpoint were 1-2-3 most of the way and remained in the same positioning after being overhauled by Dialed In. Shackleford, who won't race again before the May 7 Derby, has only $212,000 in graded earnings and with big paydays still to come in Kentucky, New York, Arkansas, California and Illinois for other hopefuls, the Dale Romans-trained colt will need a number of defections to make the 20-horse Derby field. Flashpoint has no chance with his $140,000 graded bankroll, but trainer Richard Dutrow may opt to run the gray colt once more in pursuit of a coveted Derby post.
Dialed In was visually impressive, but came home in a moderate 13 seconds. His final time of 1:50 was nearly a full second slower than Kentucky Oaks (G1) contender R Heat Lightning (Trippi) needed to win the Gulfstream Oaks (G2) a day earlier. Dialed In received a 101 BRIS Speed rating in the Florida Derby, three points lower than the Speed number he earned for winning the one-mile Holy Bull S. (G3) on January 30.
His Speed numbers are still respectable, and I don't put much stock into his final time or figure. Dialed In is a dynamic closer who appears more susceptible in a race with little pace. And pace won't be an issue in the Derby. His inexperience is a concern -- deep closers have more to deal with than lightly-raced speed horses in a bulky field -- but it may not matter. Fusaichi Pegasus rallied to capture the 2000 Derby from the tail of the field and had only four career starts beforehand.
With two starts at nine furlongs under him, Dialed In won't lack for fitness in the Derby, and he received the perfect set-up with a confidence-building victory Sunday.
Fountain of Youth winner SOLDAT (War Front) and Gotham (G3) victor STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini) were never a factor in the Florida Derby, finishing fifth and seventh, respectively, and I didn't understand the ride either one received. Both horses were pushing the action from the rear of the pack, getting dirt kicked in their face in tight quarters as the headed into the first turn, and they continued to be hustled into the backstretch instead of settling for one run. Both were through by the time they reached the final turn, and first-time blinkers didn't help Stay Thirsty.
We've seen a number of horses turn in a clunker in their final Derby prep race before rebounding with a much-improved showing, even if it's a non-threatening second or third. Soldat and Stay Thirsty don't look like legitimate win contenders, but they're capable of better at Churchill Downs.
Uncle Mo will make his first start at 1 1/8 miles following an easy romp in a one-turn mile (virtual) exhibition (March 12 Timely Writer). The $1 million Wood purse helped attract nine overmatched rivals for the plundering, and perhaps the most interesting storyline centers around DUCA (Empire Maker). The D. Wayne Lukas pupil is exiting a wire-to-wire maiden win at Oaklawn Park, netting an 87 Speed rating in the 1 1/16-mile event, and he's drawn to the outside of Uncle Mo. Will Duca be able to cross over in front of the favorite early?
The answer is probably not but it won't matter if he does. All eyes will be on Uncle Mo as he rolls through the stretch in another race against the clock, searching for signs of vulnerability going forward in the 1 1/4-mile Derby. I don't expect to see any flaws.
The Santa Anita Derby suffered a major hit with the loss of Premier Pegasus, who catapulted up the Derby rankings with a 7 3/4-length score in the March 12 San Felipe (G2). But the San Felipe was a strange race, with the front runners acting like it was six-furlong sprint (half-mile in :44 2/5) before running out of gas by the conclusion of the far turn. Premier Pegasus was the only member of the field finishing and wound up home free by midstretch. Expect a different pace scenario on Saturday.
All the speed from the San Felipe is gone except for COMMA TO THE TOP (Bwana Charlie), and I'll take a stab with the gelding who isn't even under consideration for the Kentucky Derby. Comma to the Top hung in courageously for fourth in the San Felipe and should be primed for a top performance in his third start of the year for Peter Miller. Nine furlongs remains a possible stumbling block, but Santa Anita tends to play faster on big race days (like many tracks in the nation) and speed is eligible to hold all day long.
Comma to the Top reeled off five straight victories at two, including the CashCall Futurity (G1), and should get to the rail and show the way under Corey Nakatani. I'll key him top and bottom in the exacta with Jaycito, who appears poised for a strong effort in his second outing of the year. Trainer Bob Baffert apparently entered MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE (War Chant) as a rabbit for his stablemate, but the one-run Jaycito must still avoid leaving himself too much to do in the stretch. Jaycito gets the blinkers back on, and that should help him to focus.
In the Illinois Derby, the first three horses from the rail are exiting wire-to-wire wins and THE FED EASED (Montbrook) will likely be winging it from post 7. There appears to be plenty of pace present.
Tampa Bay Derby (G2) upsetter WATCH ME GO (West Acre) is the horse to beat at Hawthorne, but the Kathleen O'Connell trainee will be making his first start outside of Florida. Give him credit for improving in last two starts at two turns, but Watch Me Go remains a question mark outside of Tampa Bay and figures to be overbet off his 43-1 shocker. He can beat me at short odds away from home.
SOUR (Lemon Drop Kid) is my top selection. The late-running gelding posted a sharp 2 1/2-length score when stretching out to a route two starts back, breaking his maiden in his second career outing, but made his initial attempt against winners in a small field with no pace last time, finishing second to subsequent Louisiana Derby (G2) seventh-placer Left (Arch). The Illinois Derby is practically a non-winners of one "other than" allowance for the Al Stall Jr.-conditioned gelding and with a favorable scenario up front, Sour could be along in time.
Enjoy the racing.