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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There is a palpable affection that trainer Nick Zito has for his colt Dialed In, who is the morning-line favorite for the 137th Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and it came bursting forth following his victory in the Florida Derby, with Zito on the verge of tears.
"I get kind of emotional, and I got emotional after the Florida Derby because this horse reminds me of Strike the Gold, and that's who put us in this situation," Zito said. "We've been in this situation for 20 years because of him."
Yes, it has been 20 years since Zito -- at the time largely unknown outside his base of New York -- rose quickly to national prominence when Strike the Gold won the 1991 Derby, with isolated television cameras capturing Zito's emotional cheers in the final furlong of the 1 1/4-mile race. Three years later, Zito did it again, with Go For Gin, a result that caused Zito to blow kisses to the camera and, with tears welling in his eyes, tell the world that "I love my kids, I love America, I love everyone."
Now, Zito is as much a part of the May landscape here as roses, Derby pie and high pollen counts. He has had 24 starters in the Derby, fourth-most all time, and has had runners in 11 of the past 16 Derbies, including runner-up Ice Box a year ago.
If Zito wins this Derby, though, it may be his greatest training feat ever. Zito kept Dialed In at the Palm Meadows training center until last weekend, doing all his serious training there, but rarely working him. He has had just two half-mile drills in the five weeks since the Florida Derby. Zito worked him just once in the four weeks leading up to the Florida Derby. And since his debut in November, Dialed In has raced just four times.
"This is the situation that presented itself. This is what Dialed In wanted to do. He's not very big, as you can see," Zito said this week outside his barn at Churchill Downs. "We had a plan to leave him at Palm Meadows, no matter what, and we stuck to it. It's a very good training center. He likes it there. I kind of babied the horse. But look at the horse. Do you think I've been walking him for two months? He's rippled. The credit goes to you-know-who, to God. All glory to him if we get it done."
There are plenty of trainers and handicappers who will be seeking divine intervention in this most inscrutable of Derbies. It has been an unorthodox year. No horse has less experience than the morning-line favorite. Several top-ranked horses have fallen by the wayside in recent weeks, and on Friday morning, the connections of Uncle Mo, the second choice on the morning line, announced that he was scratched. Questions had dogged last year's 2-year-old champion since his loss in the Wood Memorial. Another mystery surrounds Master of Hounds, the Irish invader who got here Tuesday, first went to the track Thursday, never has raced on dirt and whose trainer, Aidan O'Brien, was not expected to arrive until Friday night.
Dialed In has the advantage of a victory over the Churchill Downs track, when he defeated maidens in November. Since then, he has won twice in three starts, and those victories, in the Holy Bull Stakes and Florida Derby, have put Dialed In in the position to have a monster payday in two weeks. If he were to win the Preakness, he would receive a $5.5 million bonus from MI Developments, the owner of Gulfstream Park and Pimlico.
The prestige of the Derby trumps the cash of the Preakness, though, so all Zito's focus is on the first Saturday in May, not the third.
"This is the biggest race," Zito said. "We've been fortunate to win two, not far from each other, and we've come back with chances, but we haven't gotten it done. When you come through these hallowed grounds, you realize that there are plenty of qualified trainers who have never even gotten the chance, so I'm grateful for the opportunity."
One of those trainers is Jinks Fires, who -- at age 70, and having trained for 45 years -- sends out his first Derby starter in Archarcharch, who will be ridden by his son-in-law, Jon Court -- who at age 50 is riding in his first Derby.
Kerwin Clark, at age 52, is riding in his first Derby, aboard the long shot Decisive Moment.
There are several other terrific storylines to this year's Derby, none more so than Kathy Ritvo, the heart-transplant recipient who is the trainer of Mucho Macho Man.
Kathleen O'Connell, the trainer of Watch Me Go, is, like Ritvo, seeking to become the first female trainer to win the Derby.
Pants On Fire is ridden by Rosie Napravnik, seeking to become the first female jockey to win the Derby.
Jockey Calvin Borel, the winner of the Derby three times in the past four years, will try to engineer another upset with Twice the Appeal. No jockey has ever won three consecutive Derbies.
Nehro will try to give owner Ahmed Zayat his first Derby win, just one year after his colt Eskendereya, the acknowledged 2010 favorite, had to be pulled out of the race with what turned out to be a career-ending injury.
Midnight Interlude will try to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at age 2.
Animal Kingdom, Brilliant Speed, Derby Kitten, Master of Hounds, and Twinspired have done their best racing on synthetic surfaces or turf, and will have to prove as adept on dirt.
Santiva had significant traffic trouble in the Blue Grass, but, like Dialed In, has the benefit of a winning race over this track last fall.
Comma to the Top, Shackleford and Soldat are among those who will have to fend off one another early, and a host of others late.
If rain arrives, that would boost the chances of Soldat, who trained sensationally over the sloppy going early in the week and owns a win on an off track at Gulfstream.
The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday is for a 40 percent chance of rain, with scattered thunderstorms and a high temperature of 68 degrees. There was a 50 percent chance of rain, mostly morning showers, in the Friday forecast.
With 19 horses entered in the Derby start, the purse will be $2 million.
The Derby is the 11th race on a 13-race card scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time Saturday. Gates open at 8 a.m.
Post time for the Derby is listed as 6:24 p.m., though it's likely to go off a few minutes later. It will be televised live by NBC Sports, in a three-hour telecast beginning at 4 p.m. The cable station Versus will televise the Derby undercard, beginning at 11 a.m., then return at 7 p.m. for a half-hour recap show.