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John Clay: Zito out to end Derby drought

LOUISVILLE — Trainer Carl Nafzger won the Kentucky Derby in 1990 with Unbridled.

Seventeen years later, Nafzger won his second Kentucky Derby with Street Sense.

It's been 17 years since Nick Zito won the Kentucky Derby.

"I was saying," Zito said the other day outside his barn at Churchill Downs, "I want to be just like Carl Nafzger."

He could be, too. Even before Uncle Mo scratched out of this year's Kentucky Derby on Friday morning, Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia had made Zito's Dialed In the favorite for the 137th Run for the Roses.

"I think he's deserving of the accolades, of anything he gets," Zito said Thursday.

After all, the son of Mineshaft is coming off an impressive come-from-way-behind win in the Florida Derby, his third triumph in just four career starts.

"He left the gate, and you heard 'Dialed In didn't break well,' " Zito said. "That was his first call. Then he said 'Dialed In is in trouble.' Then 'Dialed In is moving on the outside. Here comes Dialed In. How did Dialed In win this race?' That's when we got excited. That's when we knew we might have something special."

It was a bounce-back effort, as well. After winning the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30, Zito chose a Gulfstream allowance as a prep for the Florida Derby. Dialed In went off as the 1-5 favorite, but his rally fell short and the horse finished second.

Dialed In is a definite closer. He starts slow, he picks up steam, he gets there at the wire. He didn't get there at the end of that allowance, which Zito used as more of a tuneup. He did get there at the end of the Florida Derby.

Then Zito decided to keep him there, as in keep Dialed In in Florida. With past Derby horses, the New York native often chose to arrive at Churchill Downs early. Not this year. He elected to stay in Florida's warm weather, and now the choice appears prophetic. While rain soaked the commonwealth, Zito was able to get Dialed In plenty of work in the Sunshine State.

"I think there's no better trainer in the world than Nick preparing a horse for a big race," Robert LaPenta, Dialed In's owner, said recently. "You know, he said early on, 'I'm not going to send Dialed In to Churchill early, the weather is horrible there, and you know the horse has had a lot of experience.' He was there for over a month prior to his main race, so he knows the tracks and the surroundings."

Indeed, Dialed In broke his maiden by winning the first race of his career, last November, at Churchill. He's won on the track.

His final work for the Derby came at Palm Meadows in Florida (5 furlongs in 1:01.46) before being shipped to Churchill last Saturday, however.

"I was very happy with his last work," Zito said. "That's all I can do."

And Zito has done it before. He won his first Kentucky Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold. He came back three years later with Go for Gin to win the roses in 1994. It's been a long drought since.

Nafzger ran one horse between his Derby wins. Zito has run 21, including a then-record five entries in 2005. All five finished out of the money. But last year, Ice Box, another horse owned by LaPenta, and another horse who had won the Florida Derby, finished second to Super Saver.

With Uncle Mo out, might this be the year Zito moves from second to first?

"I hope so, for Bob LaPenta," Zito said. "But listen, my preacher friends are right. You've got to be thankful for the ones you won.

"If I can keep doing it, I'll keep trying. That's a blessing. I'm very grateful to be in this situation again. Very, very grateful and humbled by it. So if we can do it, we'll see."