By Ed Gray
HALLANDALE, FL – Dialed In stormed from last with a stirring stretch rush to capture Sunday’s $1 million Florida Derby (G1), providing trainer Nick Zito with his third victory in Gulfstream Park’s signature race, as well as an exciting candidate to collect a third triumph in the Kentucky Derby.
Dialed In’s third victory in only four starts proved to be one of highlights of Zito’s Hall of Fame career, which included Kentucky Derby victories by Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994) and triumphs in the Florida Derby with High Fly in 2005 and Ice Box last year.
“I haven’t felt this emotional in 20 years since Strike the Gold. I’ve been around long enough to know how special he is with just four races…from one 6 ½-furlong maiden race as a 2-year-old,” said Zito, whose colt only made his winning career debut at Churchill Downs in late November.
Dialed In first showed Gulfstream fans how special he is when he captured the Holy Bull (G3) on Jan. 30 in only his second lifetime start. That last-to-first victory, coupled with Sunday’s Florida Derby score, qualifies Dialed In to take down the Preakness 5.5 bonus. If the Kentucky-bred colt is able to capture the Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico on May 21, owner Robert LaPenta and Zito can collect $5.5 million in bonuses in addition to the winner’s purse.
“We’ve been to the (Kentucky) Derby several times and look forward to doing it again. We almost won it with Ice Box, but it does feel special to finish second,” LaPenta said. “The goal is the Derby, but it certainly is nice to consider (Frank) Stronach’s $5.5 million bonus.”
After Sunday’s rousing victory at Gulfstream, Dialed In will certainly arrive at Churchill Downs as one of a few leading candidates for the Kentucky Derby on May 7.The 5-2 second betting choice dropped far behind his seven 3-year-old rivals during the early going of the 1 1/8-mile stakes, Trailing the seventh horse by as many as six lengths, the son of Mineshaft relaxed nicely under Julien Leparoux as Shackleford, a 68-1 long shot ridden by Jesus Castanon, set the pace while stalked by To Honor and Serve and Flashpoint to his outside. Soldat, the 3-2 favorite who won the Fountain of Youth (G2) in front-running style, settled off the pace while saving ground on the rail.
Shackleford, who finished a distant fifth in the Fountain of Youth, and To Honor and Serve took the field into the stretch after quarter-mile fractions of :23 1/5, :46 1/5 and 1:10 3/5. Shackleford asserted himself at the top of the stretch to open up a two-length lead, as To Honor and Serve and Flashpoint tried in vain to keep up and Soldat was taken to the outside by Alan Garcia for the drive. Meanwhile, Dialed In, asked by Leparoux for his run on the turn, suddenly presented himself to be a serious threat while surging past tiring horses. With an eighth of a mile to go in the 60th running of the Florida Derby, Dialed In appeared well on his way to a clear victory, but Shackleford wasn’t done running and fell only a head short of holding off the relentless Zito trainee.
“We had a plan. Julien did what we asked him to ( to rate off pace). It was a gamble with the speed bias, but I knew he was capable of running this type of race. I knew he could do this if he stayed healthy,” Zito said. “He’s amazing and I’m blessed. Once he got in position (to rally) I felt good. I’ve thought all along he was one of the top 3-year-olds in country and he proved it today.”
La Penta and Zito are the first owner and the first trainer to score back-to-back wins in the Florida Derby since Calumet Farm and Jimmy Jones won with Gen. Duke and Tim Tam in 1957-58.
Shackleford held second by 6 ¾ lengths over show finisher To Honor and Serve, the winner of the Nashua (G2) and Remsen (G2) last year.
“That’s a real tough beat. He ran super. I’m very proud of him. If $200,000 is enough to get into the Derby, I think we’ll have to go. He’s a horse that keeps improving,” said trainer Dale Romans. “We drew a line in his last race. We had no excuse for it. He came back and showed us he’s better than his last race showed. He just dug back in and galloped out real strong. He’s doing everything right.”
To Honor and Serve, who finished third in the Fountain of Youth, finished third again, 1-1/2 lengths ahead of Flashpoint. Soldat was never a factor and finished fifth, another 2 ½ lengths back.
“(The jockey) said he just didn’t fire his A race today. He didn’t have much horse when he pulled him out,” said Soldat’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “He took a lot of dirt, but you’re going to have to take dirt, so we’ll regroup and look him over.”
Dialed In, who ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50, earned $600,000 for his third victory, boosting his career bankroll to $879,206. His only loss came in his Florida Derby prep race, a second-place finish against older horses in an allowance race won by his 4-year-old stablemate Equestrio.
“I think his last race really helped him today. I loved his last race. It was a very good learning race,” said Leparoux after his first Florida Derby victory. “He learned to run between horses and take dirt in his face and it all paid off today.”
Zito was far from discouraged by Dialed In’s first loss.
“Even when he got beat by Equestrio, a good 4-year-old, it was like a Grade 3 race. And then today to beat horses that have won races like the Remsen and Fountain of Youth, you just can’t do what he’s done.”
Little Mike Runs Big In Emirates Airlines Appleton
Little Mike continued a fruitful Gulfstream Park meeting Sunday, capturing his third graded-stakes victory in the $100,000 Emirates Airlines Appleton (G3) with an impressive front-running performance.
The 4-year-old gelding, who had previously captured the Fort Lauderdale (G3) on Jan. 9 and the Canadian Turf (G3) on Feb. 27, set swift quarter-mile fractions of :23 1/5, :46 and 1:09 before showing the way to the finish line by a length. Ridden by Joe Bravo, Little Mike ran a mile on turf in 1:32 4/5.
“Little Mike just makes anyone who sits on his back look good,” Bravo said. “I don’t think they let him go in the first quarter mile, he’s just so fast out of the gate that it discourages any of the other horses from going with him. He’s the man.”
The even-money favorite, who has won seven of 13 lifetime starts, suffered his only loss of the meeting in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) at 1 1/8 miles.
“I’ve never seen him get tired. Even though he didn’t win the 1 1/8 miles race, he only got beat two lengths and that was a Grade 1. He’s been just super. He came to be in great condition,” said Dale Romans, who took over the training of Little Mike from Allen Iwinski following the Fort Lauderdale. “It’s pretty special for him to win three Graded stakes at the meet.”
Riviera Cocktail closed to be second under jockey Garrett Gomez, a neck in front of Asphalt, while making his first start since shipping from Southern California.
“I’m very pleased that he ran second,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “We would have liked a little more pace early, but he ran great and hope he continues to improve.”
Romans, who will point Little Mike toward the Woodford Reserve (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 7, thought about running Little Mike in the Maker’s Mark at Keeneland on April 15, but opted for the Appleton.
“We debated running him in this race or the Keeneland race, but decided to stay here,” Romans said. “I think he deserves another chance at a mile-and-an-eighth in the Woodford Reserve, and the timing is better from this race to that one.”
S. S. Stone Continues Comeback in Skip Away
S.S. Stone, who started for a claiming price of $20,000 at Gulfstream Park on Jan 5, continued his amazing comeback Sunday with a hard-fought.triumph in the $100,000 Skip Away (G3). His victory preceded the Florida Derby victory of stablemate Dialed In.
The 5-year-old son of Birdstone, who had been winless since his first start in California when he joined trainer Nick Zito’s barn last year, closely stalked the pace set by Colizeo after breaking from his outside post position. When asked for run at the top of the stretch by jockey Julien Leparoux, S. S. Stone responded to take the lead and successfully fought off a stretch-long challenge from Jackson Bend to the finish to prevail by a head.
The victory was S. S. Stone’s fourth straight after finishing a distant seventh in an allowance race at Calder on Dec. 10 in his first start for Zito. The Robert LaPenta-owned horse won the $20,000 claiming race by eight lengths, before capturing an entry-level allowance by six lengths and a starter allowance race by nearly four lengths.
“He was in California with Doug O’Neill and came up with some issues after the last time he ran at Del Mar. He came to me and we tried to get him started at Calder, which is a tough track to come back on and he didn’t run well,” Zito said. “We talked about it after that race and Mr. LaPenta said to go ahead and drop him in ($20,000 claiming price). We were on pins and needles that we might lose him, but he won and nobody took him. He’s just gone from one step to the next and here we are today. He’s (by) Birdstone, so that makes his success even more emotional for me.”
Zito, who saddled Birdstone for a victory in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, said he would take things one step at a time with S.S. Stone, who ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:55 3/5.
Zito also trained Jackson Bend last year, when LaPenta purchased a majority interest in the Florida-bred from breeder Jacks Or Better Farm. Returned to trainer Stanley Gold last year, the 4-year-old colt finished a close fifth in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) on March 12 and made a giant step forward in the Skip Away.
Breaking from the No. 11 post under Jeffrey Sanchez, Jackson Bend rated behind S.S, Stone into the stretch and menaced the winner to the wire while finishing a length ahead of Colizeo.
“He ran good. I’m disappointed he didn’t win, but I’m happy.” Gold said. “If I had to picked a post position, I wouldn’t have picked the 11, but there are advantages to being on the outside. (S.S. Stone, No. 10) overcame it and won and we overcame it and finished second. I can’t complain about the post.”