BALTIMORE , 05-12-11 – Negotiations to purchase Triple Crown nominee Norman Asbjornson last March fell through, but trainer Nick Zito certainly doesn’t hold any hard feelings towards the connections of the 3-year-old colt. In fact, Zito has become a big supporter of the Preakness hopeful’s trainer, Chris Grove.
Grove, in turn, has become a huge fan of the Hall of Fame trainer, who has taken a personal and financial interest in Grove’s son, Noah, who was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2004 and underwent a life-saving, through-the-knee amputation. After learning about Noah’s story during a phone conversation with Grove in March, Zito did some research and contacted Grove about donating to the annual wiffle ball tournament held in Frederick for the benefit of the Noah’s Courage Foundation of the Georgetown University Hospital.
“It makes me feel really good that he is following my career. Nick called me a couple weeks ago and told me he wanted to donate, which was nice,” said Grove, whose son, now is 12 years old. “I told him, ‘After you win the Derby and I beat you in the Preakness I will introduce you to Noah’. He read up on his story, which made me feel good because he doesn’t have much free time.”
Zito did not win the Kentucky Derby with Dialed In, who closed from last to finish eighth, but the beaten Derby favorite will return to action in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on May 21 with a chance to cash in on the Preakness 5.5 bonus series. The winner of the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, if victorious in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, can earn a $5 million bonus for owner Robert LaPenta and a $500,000 bonus for Zito.
“When you talked about things you need proper perspective. We talk about how much courage a race horse has when he goes to the track and runs. Well, meeting Chris on the phone and hearing about Noah was amazing. I had to see what Noah has done and it is amazing,” Zito said. “It was easy for me to donate after what Noah has to have dealt with in his life. I mean, he was born when Charismatic was winning the Kentucky Derby.”
Chris Grove, who recalled that his son was born when Charismatic made his move at the 3/16ths pole during his 1999 Derby run, expressed amazement at Zito’s interest in his son’s story without having even met him.
“I have always heard that he was a classy guy. 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, a lifelong Frederick resident whose father, Phil, is a Maryland steward after a long, successful riding career.
Zito said he looks forward to meeting Chris and Noah Grove after Dialed In’s scheduled arrival at Pimlico from Churchill Downs next Wednesday.
“Noah has two horses to root for next Saturday in Norman Asbjornson and Dialed In,” said Zito, whose colt would receive a $6.1 million payday with the purse and bonus with a Preakness victory. “If Dialed In wins the Preakness, the Grove family will be happy, let’s put it that way.”
Zito’s generosity would be a most welcome consolation if Norman Asbjornson falls short of realizing his trainer’s dream of winning the Preakness.
“That is neat that Nick is talking about giving money to Noah’s Foundation is he wins the Preakness. If I don’t win I certainly want Dialed In to win,” said Grove, whose Preakness hopeful had piqued Zito’s interest after finishing second in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 5.
Grove said he and his wife Rachel have been profoundly inspired by the courage of their son.
“Rachel and I have always said when race horses walk into the barn you can tell the good ones right away. When (2005 Pimlico Distaff winner) Silmaril walked into the barn I called the owners and told them she was a stakes horse. I always thought Norman was the real deal,” Grove said. “We always thought Noah was made for something and we feel very fortunate to be around him. He has always been bigger than life to us and we are proud to be his parents. We look up to him.”