04/29/2011 2:33PM

Zito ready for another dance


Derby Week is officially upon us, and Nick Zito was a little bit confused. Not about Dialed In. Not hardly. As far as Zito was concerned, the Florida Derby winner was living up to his name, tuned to his trainer’s satisfaction and ready to rumble for the roses.

Zito was more amused than confused, really, as he packed up his stable on Thursday afternoon at the Palm Meadows training center in South Florida. On Saturday, Dialed In was scheduled to head for Louisville with nine of his best friends, while the rest of the Zito string would reassemble in New York.

For a Zito Derby horse, arriving at Lourdes – make that Churchill Downs – just one week before the big dance was way out of the ordinary. Normally Zito would be deep into the mix by now, playing the Italian Brooklyn boy to the hilt, his every move scrutinized, his memories flooding back. You can’t win two Kentucky Derbies, like Zito did in 1991 and 1994, and not walk around wondering when it might happen again.

And here he was, with a horse who had beaten every member of his generation he had faced, a relentless closer with a pedigree of depth and class, lightly raced but hardly under-trained, getting lumped in with the great unwashed as just another one of the many horses who might jump up to win the 137th running of America’s most famous race.

“What has he done wrong?” Zito wondered aloud. “He hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Zito was not playing the Dangerfield card. Dialed In has been getting his share of respect. But he had been out of sight and therefore out of mind, not having run since April 3 and training off the beaten path. Add to that a media appetite craving almost hourly nourishment, clinging to the smallest dollop of Derby news. All Dialed In was doing was eating, sleeping, grazing, and training without a hitch. Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

At least Dialed In’s work on Thursday morning stirred the pot, when he went a comfortable half in company at Palm Meadows.

“He looks like he came out of the work brilliantly,” Zito said. “I’m very happy with that. I can’t guarantee he’ll win, but he will not be short. That’s a no-no.”

Zito has been big on strong gallops for Dialed In, like the two-minute licks the trainer said got the colt ready to win the Florida Derby.

“You don’t train them by the clock,” Zito said. “You train every day.”

Now comes the hard part, the final days leading up to the May 7 Derby. By arriving later than usual, Zito at least avoided the horrendous recent weather.

“Somebody asked me about that, why didn’t we come early?“ Zito said. “This was always the way we had it planned, no matter what. It just as easily could have been nice weather in Kentucky and bad weather here. People were saying how smart we were, staying down here. I’m no genius. You know me – I am definitely not the answer. This is just what we needed to do with this particular horse.

“If he has a good week there and everything goes good, he’ll come with his run,” he went on. “That’s all we can ask. Just a happy and healthy week, let him have days like he’s been having. Then he’ll be okay. I won’t have any excuses.

“Things happen in the Derby,” Zito added. “It’s always woulda-coulda-shoulda. Which foot goes which way. Let’s just hope nothing happens. You might go down there and get some weather. You don’t even want to think about spiking a temperature, something stupid like that. There are things out of our hands.”

Zito was asked if Dialed In had yet to present him with a physical problem that needed time or special attention.

“No, thank God,” the trainer replied. “And let’s keep knocking wood.

“I have a real attachment to this little horse,” he said. “He’s not very big, and he was a little bit of a butterball, but he certainly is rippled now. Even though he was so impressive in his win at Churchill on Nov. 12, most of that physical development has been this season. Because of that I think it’s pretty remarkable what he’s done in a short period of time.”

Zito was asked if he is the same trainer today that he was when Go for Gin won the Derby in 1994.

“I’m not ancient, but I think when you get older you pick up from a lot of the great guys through the years,” he said. “And one thing you learn is you really can’t worry what other people think. There is no conventional way of doing things.

“Baffert trains a certain way and does an unbelievable job,” Zito added. “Lukas when he was going great guns did it his way. Shug McGaughey, Neil Drysdale, Billy Mott, Bobby – whoever I’m leaving out, they all did things differently, but the results were the same. I do the things I think is right with the horse I have.”

After a Derby drought of 15 years, Zito nearly had the right horse in 2010. Ice Box, also the Florida Derby winner, came flying late after experiencing more than his share of trouble and was second, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Super Saver.

“A lot of people thought Ice Box was peaking at the right time, and a lot of things had to happen to him for him to lose,” Zito said. “Yes, it’s been a long time between drinks, but you know what? I’m very glad to be able to say that.”