LOUISVILLE — — Nick Zito has always been a superstitious guy. When he has a good horse, though, superstition all but dominates his thoughts. He gets so anxious during the build-up to a big race he tends to pause conversations in mid-sentence, sometimes even mid-word, just so he can find a piece of wood to knock on.
Zito has been knocking on wood a lot this week — on barns, on chairs, and on fence posts — and he hasn't been sleeping much either. All of that is a good sign in the eyes of Robert LaPenta, the owner of Dialed In who also happens to be one of Zito's good friends.
It suggests that the 63-year-old trainer truly believes he has a potential winner in Dialed In, and that the horse deserves the honor of being made a 4-1 favorite to win Saturday's 137th Kentucky Derby. Zito has saddled his share of horses over the years, including Derby winners in 1991 and 1994, and he's always on edge for the ones he believes in the most.
"Nick is a pretty calm guy," LaPenta said. "But I've never seem him this anxious. I've never seen him lose this much sleep. We've had some nice horses, but I've never seen him have this much of a connection with a horse as he does with Dialed In."
That's a bold statement to make about Zito, a Hall of Famer who has had 24 runners in the Derby, the fourth most of all time. But the Brooklyn-born Zito doesn't disagree. Dialed In really does feel like a special horse to him. So special that, when the horse won the Florida Derby by a nose over Shackleford last month, Zito had to fight back tears.
"There is just something about him," Zito said. "He's not a big, big horse. He's just got a very good heart. I think he's got what they call a strong will. You should love all your horses, which I do, but there is something very special about him."
One of the reasons Dialed In is special to Zito is he reminds the trainer a lot of Strike the Gold, the horse who 20 years ago won the Kentucky Derby. That victory helped Zito, who at the time was an unknown trainer outside of New York area, become one of the biggest names in the sport.
If not for Strike the Gold, Zito figures he would have missed out on a lot of good horses down the line, including several with LaPenta, a native of Yonkers who is now the chairman of the board, president and CEO of L1 Identity Solutions, a defense contractor based in Connecticut. LaPenta got into racing in 1998 by forming a partnership with basketball coach Rick Pitino, but in 2001 he decided he wanted his own stable, and picked Zito to be his primary trainer.
"I've been a thoroughbred racing fan my entire life," LaPenta said. "I grew up close to Yonkers Raceway, and I always wanted to get involved. When I looked at the game and tried to figure out how you could be successful, I felt like you couldn't just be successful racing. You've got to have horses that ultimately have some value. Nick, to, me, was the trainer who was the most capable of finding a horse, developing that horse, and getting that horse to the big race. Of all the trainers, he was the guy I wanted to have a partnership with, and it turned out, thank God, to also be a friendship."
Last year, Zito and LaPenta probably had the best horse in the field in Ice Box, but traffic problems forced jockey Jose Lezcano to check him three separate times during the race. And he still nearly caught the winner, Super Saver, at the wire.
Zito acknowledged this week that last year's near miss with Ice Box stirred something in him, and maybe even reignited his competitive fire. At age 63, he knows he doesn't have a ton of chances left. Although he tasted his share of success in the Triple Crown races in the 1990s — winning two Derbys and a Preakness— the decade that followed was not quite as fruitful. In 2001, he and LaPenta had the morning line favorite in the Derby in Cliff's Edge, but he threw two shoes at the start of the race and finished fifth. In 2005, Zito brought five horses to the Derby, and none finished better than seventh.
LaPenta said he can remember lengthy stretches — sometimes as long as 30 races — when he had a horse trained by Zito that failed to hit the board, and as their losing streak mounted, both owner and trainer began to question whether they should make some changes to their routine.
"I think we have a unique relationship," LaPenta said. "We've stuck together through good times and bad times, and, believe me, there have been some bad times."
But LaPenta now equates it to a long slump in baseball. In 2008, they broke out of it with a surprise win in the Belmont with Da'Tara. Ice Box's near miss only made Zito crave a third Derby that much more.
"We decided to just keep hitting line drives, because we knew eventually they were going to start dropping in," LaPenta said. "Hopefully we'll get one to drop in this weekend."
Zito trusted his gut with Dialed In, keeping him at the training center in Palm Meadows, Florida almost the entire winter and working him very little. But the unorthodox move appears to have paid off. If he runs well on Saturday, Zito believes Dialed In has a great shot to win the race.
"Knock on wood," Zito added, before leaning over and rapping his knuckles on a chair.