Almost anyone who had visited New Yorkâ€™s marvelous Saratoga Race Course would testify that the racing program on Sunday, Aug. 12 was not one of the stellar days enjoyed at the historic Spa.
Rain and a weaker-than-usual racing program kept spirits in check, at least until one beautiful moment arrived, last in the day.
The symbolic break in the clouds was provided by Morton Finkâ€™s Kentucky-based Wise Dan, one of American racingâ€™s most versatile stars. Wise Dan, racing for the first time for trainer Charlie Lopresti since a disappointing last-jump loss to Ron the Greek in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap in June at Churchill Downs, waited patiently under jockey John Velasquez on a boggy Saratoga turf course. Then he shot through an inside hole to roll to an emphatic five-length victory in the Grade II Fourstardave Handicap.
If not for that narrow loss in the Stephen Foster, Wise Dan would probably be hailed as the best horse in America right now. But thatâ€™s OK â€“ heâ€™s got plenty of time to earn that title by the end of the year.
Wise Dan is a graded stakes winner on all three surfaces in American racing: dirt, turf and synthetic. He owns a Grade I victory on dirt in last fallâ€™s Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. His brief 2012 campaign has been a study in versatility and excellence that includes a season-opening 10 Â½-length romp on synthetic Polytrack in Keenelandâ€™s Ben Ali, his loss by a narrow head in the Foster and Sundayâ€™s soggy stroll in the Fourstardave.
In horse racing, there are â€œhorses for coursesâ€ â€“ runners that enjoy their greatest success on particular surfaces and tracks. Wise Dan is a horse for any course, with six wins in his last eight races and a career record of 10-1-0 in 17 starts with earnings of $1,394,418.
Since synthetic tracks started popping up around North America, only one horse has scored Grade I stakes victories on all three racing surfaces. That horse is the retired Lava Man, who received plenty of attention this spring for his role as trainer Doug Oâ€™Neillâ€™s stable pony for Kentucky Derby winner Iâ€™ll Have Another.
One other horse â€“ the Brazilian-bred, Kentucky-based Einstein, came close to that rare triple with Grade I wins on synthetic and grass courses, but he fell short in two tries Grade I tries on the dirt in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap. He ran second to eventual Horse of the Year Curlin in 2008 and finished a hard-luck third to Macho Again in the 2009 running, a race in which he was hampered by traffic woes and was probably the best horse.
Last yearâ€™s Clark Handicap is the only Grade I triumph currently on Wise Danâ€™s resumÃ©, but if there is any horse in America that seems eligible to join Lava Man as Americaâ€™s most versatile, high-level runner, it would seem to be Loprestiâ€™s star.
Wise Danâ€™s next start is expected to come in a Grade I event on either dirt or grass. Lopresti is looking at the Woodward over the Saratoga dirt on Sept. 3 as a prime target, but the Grade I Woodbine Mile on turf at Torontoâ€™s Woodbine is also an option.
A win in the latter could put Wise Dan two thirds of the way toward Lava Man, and year-end options for Lopresti loom on dirt and grass at Santa Anita in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic or the Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile, which is run over grass.
Itâ€™s good to have choices.
A Grade I run over a synthetic course would likely have to occur next year, perhaps in a race like the Pacific Classic at Southern Californiaâ€™s Del Mar. That would not be a normal journey for the Keeneland-based Lopresti, but he could be motivated to travel with a lightly-raced 5-year-old gelding that, provided he stays healthy, seems to be approaching his prime.
â€œThere are not many horses who could do what heâ€™s done,â€ Lopresti said after the Fourstardave. â€œBased on what he did today, heâ€™s the best horse on the East Coast.â€
After starting the year with three national stars, Wise Dan represents Loprestiâ€™s hope for autumn glory.Â Stablemates Successful Dan, an older half-brother to Wise Dan and the winner of the Grade II Alysheba at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day, and Turallure, who lost last yearâ€™s running of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile by a painful nose, have gone to the sidelines with injuries.
But Wise Dan marches on and his run in the Stephen Foster Handicap, although disappointing to Lopresti, indicates that he should be included in any conversations regarding the top dirt horses in America and leading candidates for the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic.
The Foster, billed in June as the top race-to-date for American older horses, has validated that assessment. It has been a â€œkey raceâ€ from which its participants have gone on to enjoy significant success on other fronts.
Fort Larned, last in the Foster after a difficult trip, has since won the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga and the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker, in which he defeated Successful Dan. The victorious Ron the Greek was the Whitney runner-up, and Alternation, who had a four-race win streak snapped with a fifth-place effort in the Foster, rebounded to win last weekâ€™s $200,000 Governorâ€™s Cup at Remington Park.
The Foster lived up to its pre-race hype and with a little luck and a better journey, Wise Dan could have won it.Â He is a very good horse.
The Fourstardave was special in many ways to Velasquez, who suffered a broken collarbone in the race the followed the Foster that night at Churchill Downs. He returned to the saddle in the early days of the Saratoga meet, and the Fourstardave â€“ named for a Saratoga favorite trained by Velasquezâ€™s father-in-law, Leo Oâ€™Brien â€“ put an exclamation point on a day that begin with the enshrinement of the jockey who rode Animal Kingdom to victory in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, in racingâ€™s Hall of Fame.
So it was a full day, and the victory aboard Wise Dan pointed to continued good things in the weeks ahead aboard his versatile and very talented horse.
â€œI think heâ€™s incredible,â€ Velasquez said.Â â€œFor him to (win) on dirt, Polytrack, and grass â€“ soft turf â€“ I am very impressed with him. â€¦ He has done everything so well.â€
Photo by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs