Nick Zito said he had a dream that Ice Box would win the Florida Derby last weekend despite a deer running across the track at Gulfstream Park. The deer did not materialize, that species being quite rare in urban South Florida but Ice Box, at 20-1, rallied from last of eight into the Kentucky Derby frame with a dramatic, narrow victory over another longshot, Pleasant Prince.
Perfectly pure Zito. Saw this one coming in dream.
Though Ice Box was well below the radar prior to the Grade 1 Florida Derby, the chestnut colt by Pulpit from Spice Island by Tabasco Cat is now Louisville bound on a route yet to be determined, pending perhaps another nocturnal revelation. "I'm going to try as hard as I can to win the Kentucky Derby with this horse," said Zito, who, ever aware of signs from above and other supernatural direction, must now determine whether or not Ice Box would benefit from another test prior to the first Saturday of May or go into the Derby off a six-week respite.
And, premature though it may be at this early stage of the game, I now have my Derby horse.
Zito has been there and done that twice with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin three years later. He knows the drill and both sides of Derby fortune. His five starters in 2005 finished seventh, eighth, tenth, fourteenth and fifteenth. No trainer has ever endured a Derby day worse than that. His two winners excepted, 19 others saddled in the Derby by Zito since 1990 have failed to finish in the top three, but Zito's horses are most dangerous when overlooked.
Ice Box may be the one to snap a personal losing streak that Zito has suffered for almost 15 years. During that span he has sent out horses to win the Preakness and a couple runnings of the Belmont Stakes, played the spoiler in years when Smarty Jones and Big Brown were in position to win the Triple Crown. He won the Travers with Birdstone; the Kentucky Oaks with Bird Town and in 2005 was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. But nothing is as important to Zito as winning the Kentucky Derby.
"A race?" Zito says of the Derby. "It's more than a race. It's an event. You can say it's like the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Masters, the Indy 500 what are they? These are the biggest events in sports. The Derby is one of those and, yes, winning it has changed my life. Seven months, day and night, thinking about it. You start thinking about it in November and that's seven months until May."
Though he may not have been thinking about this one since November, the horse Zito now sees as his best current prospect to succeed at Churchill Downs attracted no attention last summer when he was unplaced in two sprints at Saratoga, then, in October, in a one-turn mile at Belmont Park.
In the clarity of retrospect, those distances were too sharp for Ice Box, who broke his maiden in his first two-turn assignment at the Meadowlands in late October, began the new season with an entry-level allowance win over 9 furlongs at Gulfstream before being compromised by a poor start and wide trip in the Fountain of Youth Stakes won by Eskendereya, the Wood Memorial-bound leader of most current Derby polls.
Ice Box has a pedigree, stride and running style suited perfectly to a strongly run 10 furlongs, which is the typical Derby pace. He is moving forward incrementally and the Florida Derby, his third victory in four starts, may have been a breakthrough effort and there may very well be more where that came from. That remains to be seen. But the continued success of Eskendereya and Lookin At Lucky, both formidable animals, will assure betting value though perhaps less so than the 20-1 odds at which he was dismissed last weekend in what appears to be the best closer in a generation of 3-year-olds that is rather thin at the top.
Personally, I'd prefer to see another race three weeks before the Derby. Zito, to be sure, will be on the alert for a sign.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.