Vinery LTD presents the Paulick Derby Index: Can Zito Recapture the Magic? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Vinery LTD presents the Paulick Derby Index: Can Zito Recapture the Magic?

There was a time, not so long ago it seems, that New York native Nick Zito could have been elected Mayor of Louisville, Governor of Kentucky, or King of the Kentucky Derby. The Hall of Fame trainer won the Derby two times in his first three tries – with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in '94. Zito's first run for the roses fell short in 1990 when Thirty Six Red finished ninth.

I walked back to the barn area with Zito after Thirty Six Red's loss to Unbridled, and the trainer introduced me to his unique brand of philosophy. “It just wasn't meant to be,” he said. “God smiled down on Mrs. Genter” – a reference to the winning owner, Frances Genter, whose half-century dedication to racing and breeding was finally rewarded when Unbridled burst to the lead at the top of the stretch and carried her colors to victory.

The springtime pilgrimage from Florida to Kentucky – first to Keeneland, then to Churchill Downs – became an annual ritual for Zito. He spoke in reverent terms of the Bluegrass State and how 3-year-old Thoroughbreds just seemed to blossom here on their road to the Triple Crown.

But then those 3-year-olds stopped blossoming for Zito when it came to the most important Saturday on the racing calendar. Suave Prospect ran 11th in the '96 Derby, Diligence finished ninth and Louis Quatorze 16th in '96. Jack Flash and a colt with the unfortunate name Shammy Davis ran up the track in '97. Zito's second Blue Grass winner, Halory Hunter, could do no better than fourth in '98. Stephen Got Even and Adonis were also rans in '99.

After a year away from Louisville in 2000, Zito regrouped with the expensive and well-bred bust AP Valentine, who finished seventh in 2001.

In 2004, The Cliff's Edge gave Zito his third victory in what was then perhaps the major Derby prep, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. But in the Derby “Cliff” finished fifth and Zito stablemate Birdstone wound up eighth to Smarty Jones – though Birdstone got a measure of revenge in the Belmont Stakes when he pulled the rug out from under Smarty's Triple Crown coronation party.

The next year Zito went for an audacious “strength in numbers” play, saddling a record five runners—25% of the field, including the favorite Bellamy Road. But the results (Bellamy Road, seventh, the rest, farther back) were anything but dominant.

After failing to come up with a Derby horse in 2006 and '07, Zito returned in 2008 with a two-horse entry, Anak Nakal and Cool Coal Man, but the results were the same – off the board. In 2009 he saddled Nowhere to Hide – a fitting name for the one-time King of Kentucky — to a 17th-place finish behind longshotwinner Mine That Bird.

Last year, Zito almost got his Derby Mojo back when Florida Derby winner Ice Box made a heroic run from the back of the pack but couldn't catch Super Saver, falling 2 1/2 lengths short at the end of the mile and a quarter test. A second entrant, Jackson Bend, finished 12th.

Robert LaPenta's Dialed In looks to be the New Yorker's best shot at Derby glory since his five-horse entry in 2005, but Zito has changed his approach after going through this 0-for-21 drought. That's the second-longest losing streak in Kentucky Derby history, behind you-know-who (hint: that trainer's streak ended last year).

Instead of talking up Kentucky and the healthy benefits of the blue grass growing from the fertile soil, Zito stayed in the quiet confines of the Palm Meadows training facility in Boynton Beach, Fla., not far from his winter home in toney Boca Raton. Zito shipped Dialed In to Churchill Downs after the Mineshaft colt had completed all of his major Derby preparations.

A victory on Saturday might bring back some of Zito's love for the Bluegrass State, but it's been 17 long years since he was the Mayor of Louisville, the King of the Kentucky Derby.

Nothing demonstrates Zito's diminishing profile in the Derby City more than a minor incident that took place Monday at a Starbucks coffee shop in the shadow of Churchill Downs in Louisville. A woman stopped in to drop off a gift for a Starbucks employee – a Nick Zito bobblehead, signed by Zito himself. The visitor asked the person at the cash register to hold it for a co-worker coming in later that day.  The employee looked at the bobblehead like it was an alien from outer space, wondering “WTF is that?”

Perhaps on Saturday she'll know.

I'd love to see Zito snap that losing streak and get his third Derby victory, but I just don't think it's meant to be. Dialed In's running style puts him at the same disadvantage that may have cost Ice Box in 2010. Threading through a 20-horse field from the back is no easy task.

So after being on Dialed In's bandwagon for several weeks, I'm jumping ship.  My final top ten is below.

(All Paulick Derby Index handicappers turned in their lists prior to the news that Toby's Corner would not be entered in Saturday's Kentucky Derby)

1-Midnight Interlude. Trainer Bob Baffert is gunning for Derby No. 4, and this colt is moving in the right direction. Monday's work was strong by the son of War Chant, and his Santa Anita Derby was really a good effort, despite racing somewhat erratically down the stretch. Let's hope Victor Espinoza doesn't get the urge to move too soon.

2-Nehro. Is he the talking horse of the 2011 Derby field? Sure sounds like it, but you can count on one hand the number of modern-day Derby winners who came into the race with just one career victory.

3-Dialed In. Julien Leparoux times closing moves as good as any jockey in America, but he'll have a lot of work to do from the three-eighths pole to the finish on Saturday.

4-Toby's Corner. Withdrawn from Derby consideration.

5-Animal Kingdom. The more I see, the more I like. He's a grinder who reminds me a lot of Gato Del Sol, a horse who won the Derby in 1982 with a sustained half-mile run.

6-Uncle Mo. He'll shut me up with a win. I promise. I just don't think son of Indian Charlie has moved forward since winning the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs last November.

7-Archarcharch. Son of Arch should be in the thick of things when the field hits the top of the stretch. Not sure he has the staying power to get the distance.

8-Mucho Macho Man.  One of the most consistent and seasoned colts in this year's field. May be the feel-good story of the 2011 Derby because of 3M's connections.

9-Pants On Fire. Another great human intereststory would emerge with a victory. By being the first female to ride a Kentucky Derby winner, Rosie Napravnik would become an instant celebrity. No lie.

10—Shackleford. Part of the speed brigade, he'll be at the mercy of track superintendent Butch Lehr and Mother Nature.


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