HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Trainer Nick Zito always says "you've got to play the cards that are dealt you" when it comes to the Kentucky Derby – even if the cards say the best play would be the unorthodox one of running his top Derby prospect Dialed In against older horses in Sunday's fourth race at Gulfstream Park.
Zito had mapped out a more traditional itinerary for Dialed In's path on the road to the Kentucky Derby this winter. But he suddenly found it necessary to call an audible after a sloppy racetrack prompted him to scratch Dialed In out of his first scheduled 3-year-old appearance in a nine-furlong allowance race ultimately won by Soldat on Jan. 21.
At that point, Zito had little choice but to bring Dialed In back against more experienced rivals in the one mile Holy Bull. Dialed In proceeded to perform above even Zito's own high expectations, winning the Holy Bull in a manner which suddenly thrust him into the upper echelon of Kentucky Derby contenders.
Winning the Holy Bull so impressively with Dialed In solved one problem and created another for Zito and owner Robert LaPenta. It gave Dialed In enough graded earnings to almost assure him of a spot in this year's Derby field but was too good to wheel him right back in another tough race like the Fountain of Youth just four weeks later. That left Zito searching for an alternative route to his next major goal for Dialed In the Grade 1 Florida Derby here on April 3. That is the same race Zito successfully used as a springboard for both Strike the Gold and Go for Gin en route to their Kentucky Derby victories in 1991 and 1994.
Zito's alternatives included training Dialed In up to the Florida Derby off a nine-week layoff, keeping him at a mile and taking on current division leader and Derby favorite Uncle Mo next weekend in the Timely Writer overnight stakes, heading to Tampa for the Tampa Bay Derby, or somehow getting an allowance race to go at his preferred distance of nine furlongs.
A second-level optional claimer for 3-year-olds did not come close to filling for Saturday's card. But when racing secretary Dan Bork opened the same event up to older horses on Sunday, Zito went all in, with both Dialed In and stablemate Equestrio, and had himself his Florida Derby prep.
"It was the La Penta family's first priority and my first priority to run in an allowance race at nine furlongs and fortunately Gulfstream got the race to fill," said Zito. "Obviously his performance in the Holy Bull was unusual, so coming off that race we wanted to take every precaution necessary when you have a good horse like this. He had a great work last Friday at Palm Meadows and I'd rather go into this race off that work than have to work him again and have had to run against Uncle Mo or go to Tampa."
If Dialed In is to remain unbeaten, it is his stablemate Equestrio he may have to beat. The 4-year-old Equestrio already owns a first-level allowance win at the meeting and ran equally as well when finishing fourth behind Groomedforvictory when stepping up to the next level five weeks later.
Reprized Halo is the only other 3-year-old in the lineup besides Dialed In and is still trying to duplicate the effort that saw him hand Gourmet Dinner his first setback in the In Reality finale of Calder's Florida Stallion Stakes in October.
William's Kitten is another looking to rekindle past glories while making just his second start since finishing a rallying third in the 2010 Holy Bull.
Valerius takes on tougher after defeating entry-level allowance company last month at Tampa.