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Parity party: Derby has no clear favorite

LOUISVILLE — The wooden stable sign outside of Barn 36 might be the item at Churchill Downs that has endured the most wear and tear the past seven days.

Just as it is part of Nick Zito's routine to keep tabs on the Thoroughbreds in his barn, it has also become habit for the Hall of Fame trainer to knock on the aforementioned piece of lumber in his daily quest to keep the racing gods on his side.

In a week that has seen two leading contenders, including reigning juvenile champion Uncle Mo, knocked out of the 137th Kentucky Derby, no one could fault Zito for doing everything in his power to enhance the karma for his Grade I-winning charge Dialed In.

Now that all the jostling and decisions have seemingly come to a close, it's up to Dialed In to try to make his own luck in a race many believe to be a proverbial crapshoot.

Should Zito's precocious trainee successfully unleash his late-running speed against 18 others in Saturday's $2 million Kentucky Derby, the 3-year-old division might finally be able to say for the first time in weeks it has a definitive leader.

While Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Uncle Mo was the pro-tem leader of the class before April 9, his loss to Toby's Corner in the Grade I Wood Memorial threw the forecast for the 2011 Kentucky Derby into a tailspin.

Both Uncle Mo and Toby's Corner were declared out of the Derby this week because of ailment or injury, leaving the lightly raced Dialed In as the lukewarm standout.

With only one loss in four starts, including a gritty triumph in the Grade I Florida Derby, Dialed In was made the 4-1 morning-line choice in the field — a fitting ascent for a horse who began his career by overcoming a heap of trouble in his first start to win at Churchill Downs on Nov. 12.

"I remember he broke not as good and he was way back and kind of was in trouble," Zito recalled of that start. "He kind of did this and did that and just came running and we all got excited.

"He's got a lot of will, put it that way, and I love that about the horse. He has a lot of heart, and he seems like he always tries to get there. And he does."

In defeating a Florida Derby field that featured Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Soldat and graded stakes winners To Honor and Serve and Stay Thirsty, Dialed In earned the right to carry the bull's-eye on his back Saturday.

Still, there is some debate over just how good an assembly of 3-year-olds this is right now. Dialed In is one of just five Grade I winners in the field for the Derby, and for two of the others — Blue Grass Stakes winner Brilliant Speed and Santa Anita Derby hero Midnight Interlude — their only other career victories are maiden triumphs.

The fact that Arkansas Derby runner-up Nehro — who only has a maiden win to his credit — was made the 6-1 third choice in the morning line also speaks to the difficulty of figuring out this group..

Brilliant Speed, Derby Kitten and Animal Kingdom are unproven on dirt, and although Comma to the Top and Shackleford have ample early speed, both have distance limitations in their pedigree that could be exposed over the Derby's 11/4-mile distance.

"They always end up separating themselves at the quarter pole," said three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle Midnight Interlude. "It's like when they send a man to space. The first gas tank shoots off at about the half-mile pole and then the second one shoots out about the three-eighths and then whatever's left that's what finishes up there.

"But I think we have parity. I think people think, 'Well there's not that good of a horse,' but I think they're all good horses."'

Dialed In may be at the head of the list now, but his late-running style puts him partially at the mercy of the pace scenario.

Shackleford and Comma to the Top are probable candidates to be on the front end with Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire also figuring to be pressing the issue.

Though Soldat has notched each of his three career wins on the front end, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin expects the colt to settle just off the early pace. Should the track turn up wet as it has the past two years, Soldat chances would probably improve since he won an allowance race over a sloppy Gulfstream Park track in January by 103/4 lengths.

"If (Uncle Mo) had kept winning, then he would be the big favorite, but right now it's wide open," McLaughlin said. "I don't know though that him running in the race or not changes it a whole lot. You still need to have a good post position and a decent trip because there are so many rough trips into that first turn."

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