It was billed as potentially the most telling Kentucky Derby prep to date of the 2011 season.
Sure enough, Sunday's Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park didn't fail to dole out its share of key lessons to keep in mind five weeks from now.
If there was any doubt how legit the lightly raced Dialed In might be in the wake of his runner-up effort in an allowance race last month, the son of Mineshaft squashed that when he overcame a speed-favoring track and an accomplished bunch of challengers to beat long shot Shackleford by a head at the wire.
Trainer Nick Zito has been moved by many a horse in the past, but there is a reason the Hall of Famer was especially emotional after Dialed In's Florida Derby triumph.
Considering the dark bay colt is by Mineshaft, who didn't blossom until his 4-year-old season, and is a grandson of A.P. Indy, who is not known for producing precocious offspring, the fact Dialed In has become as good as he is four races into his career speaks volumes about his ultimate potential.
His late-running style does make Dialed In dependent on pace. That may come back to bite him down the road, but the half-mile fractions of 46.35 that pacesetter Shackleford put up Sunday is almost certain to be similar to what we're going to see on Derby day.
No wonder Zito was fighting back tears — in a good way.
"I've thought all along he was one of the top 3-year-olds in the country, and he proved it today," Zito said.
Just as the Florida Derby solidified how strong a bullet Zito is packing for May, it also exposed some chunks in the armor of other top contenders.
To Honor and Serve didn't embarrass himself with his third-place run, but he didn't up his stock much either. The son of Bernardini had every chance to get by Shackleford in the lane but, instead, weakened and was beaten by63/4 lengths by the runner up.
Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Soldat was clearly a less effective horse sitting off the pace as he struggled home a non-threatening fifth, and Gotham Stakes winner Stay Thirsty never lifted a hoof, coming home seventh in his first start with blinkers.