Nick Zito believes his horse Dialed In is the best 3-year-old in the country. He'll be keeping an eye on a rival in Saturday's Preakness, though, and maybe even rooting a bit for Norman Asbjornson.
Zito was in negotiations to purchase that colt in March, but things fell through. Norman Asbjornson ended up in the barn of Chris Grove, who will saddle him in the $1 million second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico.
Zito and Grove have developed a mutual admiration based on Grove's 12-year-old son, Noah. The boy was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2004 and underwent a lifesaving amputation of his knee.
Zito learned about Noah's story when he spoke to Grove in March. Zito couldn't help but be touched and he donated money to a wiffle ball tournament that benefited Noah's Courage Foundation based at George Washington Hospital.
"This is his foundation, but it's not him. He's helping all his other buddies who have these terrible things," Zito said about Noah. "He's going to help them get through these things. This cure and this great cause will give some of these kids great happiness. He's very inspirational and I wish him all the best."
The elder Grove was amazed that Zito would take interest in his son's story without having even met him.
"To have one of the top guys in our industry take the time to research Noah and find out about his story shows how classy he is," said Grove, who lives in Frederick, Md., and whose father, Phil, is a Maryland steward and a former jockey.
Zito finally met Noah at the Preakness draw earlier in the week. The way Zito sees it, the boy has two horses to root for in the race.
If Dialed In wins, the colt would earn a $6.1 million payday. That includes the winner's purse of $600,000, and a $5 million bonus for owner Robert LaPenta and a $500,000 bonus for Zito. Dialed In became eligible for the bonus by winning the Holy Bull Stakes and Florida Derby at Gulfstream.
"If Dialed In wins the Preakness, the Grove family will be happy, let's put it that way," Zito said, intimating that he would share some of his good financial fortune.
"It's not like that money is just going to go in the bank. Of course, you don't get any interest anymore anyway. We're going to give it to the right people if it happens."
Dialed In finished eighth as the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Grove didn't pay much attention to the race won by Animal Kingdom that day, which was Noah's birthday. He took his son and five friends out for Japanese food.
If Norman Asbjornson wins the Preakness, it would be the biggest victory of Grove's career. The colt finished second in the Gotham Stakes, which piqued Zito's interest in buying him, and he was fourth in the Wood Memorial.
"That is neat that Nick is talking about giving money to Noah's Foundation if he wins the Preakness," Grove said. "If I don't win, I certainly want Dialed In to win."
Either way, Grove said he and his wife Rachel have been inspired by their son's courage.
"We always thought Noah was made for something and we feel very fortunate to be around him," he said. "He has always been bigger than life to us and we are proud to be his parents. We look up to him."