In real time, it has been four years since Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito entered a contender in the Kentucky Derby. That being the longest gap between appearances since Zito's first in 1990, it feels to him like the equivalent of the Chicago Cubs' quest for a World Series title.
For most trainers, the mini-drought would be viewed as just that, not an indictment of his program. But when you rack up five classic wins including two Kentucky Derby triumphs, being held to a different standard comes with the territory.
Zito knows that and doesn't argue otherwise. However, it helps that a colt in his care is one race away from halting his Derby cold streak.
Zito-trainee Frammento is a picture of a horse to look at amid the Keeneland landscape, with good flesh carried all over his chromed out, chestnut frame. As good as the son of Midshipman is at posing, Zito wants him to save his best for Saturday as he attempts to upset morning-line favorite Carpe Diem and six others in the Grade I, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.
The 11⁄8-mile Blue Grass Stakes offers 100 qualifying points to the winner in the Kentucky Derby points system. With 40 and 20 points available to the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, a top-three finish in the Blue Grass probably would give Frammento — who has 10 points courtesy of his third-place finish in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes — enough to make it into the starting gate for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
If that scenario comes to pass Saturday, Frammento would become the 26th Kentucky Derby starter of Zito's career and his first since he saddled Grade I winner Dialed In to an eighth-place finish in 2011.
"We're very blessed right now, very fortunate and grateful to have the horse the way we have him right now," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "He's really ready, he's a ready horse, but you have to be ready. He's getting to have a real personality.
"Some people get more attention than other people, and he's getting more attention right now. He knows now that when he walks around, everyone is looking at him. Hopefully in a couple days, we'll have the same conversation and it'll be even better."
Owned by Nena Moss, Frammento has one win in six career starts, but that victory came when he broke his maiden going 11⁄16 miles over the Keeneland main track in October.
After beginning his 3-year-old year with a sixth-place finish in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 24, Frammento put in a sneaky good run to get third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 21, mounting a rally from last with 5⁄16 of a mile remaining over a track that was playing extremely slow.
"It was an amazing run," Zito said of the Fountain of Youth effort. "Normally everyone gets excited when they win, but we were just excited when we hit the top three. And to close on that track was darn good."
His progression "reminds me of (1991 Kentucky Derby winner) Strike the Gold, to be honest with you," Zito said. "That's why you get excited, you get a good feeling."
Given that the Gulfstream surface played on the slow side again in the Grade I Florida Derby last weekend, Zito is glad he opted to get out of Florida and put Frammento in a position where he'll need only to van up the road to Louisville should things go well Saturday.
"We knew when we came here in October how much he liked" this surface, Zito said. "So we always had this in mind."
Even if Zito's stock has dropped some in recent years, he isn't getting away from what has always worked in his favor. For starters, he is as superstitious as ever.
"On the flight (Tuesday) ... they tell me that Frammento was in the same stall on the plane that (2014 Kentucky Derby winner) California Chrome had last year when he flew to Kentucky," Zito explained.
It wasn't that long ago that one couldn't fathom the run-up to the Kentucky Derby without Zito's quips as part of the soundtrack. Give him a good 3-year-old to work with, and he'll be all too happy to show he hasn't forgotten how to get back there in style.