The third full weekend of the New Year seems as good a point as any to look at the 2012 racing year behind us, and now that weâ€™re at the 100-days-and-counting mark, cast a firm gaze toward Churchill Downs on the first weekend in May.
With those dual purposes in mind, that third weekend of 2013 was very big for Wise Dan and trainers Dale Romans and D. Wayne Lukas.
Saturdayâ€™s Eclipse Awards ceremony at Floridaâ€™s Gulfstream Park served as a coronation for many Kentucky-based racing stars, but the nightâ€™s biggest winners were the Lexington-based Wise Dan and the Louisville-born Romans.
As expected, Wise Dan was named â€œHorse of the Yearâ€ in a three-way vote with finalists Iâ€™ll Have Another, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, and Fort Larned, the Churchill Downs-based winner of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic.
Not only did the now 6-year-old gelding become the first dominant turf miler to earn the gold statuette that is presented each year to Americaâ€™s best horse, he was also named top older male and male turf horse. In doing so, the Charles Lopresti-trained son of Wisemanâ€™s Ferry became the first horse to earn those three Eclipse Awards in a single season since the great John Henry, who took the same divisional titles in 1981.
Owner Morton Finkâ€™s homebred, who won five of six starts in 2012 that included four victories on grass, a dazzling romp on Polytrack in the Ben Ali at Keeneland and a narrow loss on traditional dirt in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, enters 2013 as the target for any older horse or rising 3-year-old with designs on the biggest of racingâ€™s championships in the New Year.
The versatile Wise Dan will be back in 2013 to build on his accomplishments, as will the other major stars in Loprestiâ€™s barn. Those horses are Successful Dan, who defeated Fort Larned to win the 2012 running of the Grade II Alysheba at Churchill Downs, and Turallure, a Grade I winner of turf. Both horses had injury problems through much of last year, but provide Loprestiâ€™s small operation with remarkable firepower for this yearâ€™s campaign.
Romans, meanwhile, completed a steady climb to the top of his profession when he earned the Eclipse that honored him as Americaâ€™s top trainer.
The son of the late Churchill Downs-based trainer Jerry Romans won nine Grade I races on the way to his first honor as the nationâ€™s outstanding trainer. Shackleford, who provided Romans with his first classic victory in the 2011 Preakness, accounted for two of those with dramatic victories in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park and Churchill Downsâ€™ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare.
Other Grade I-winning Romans stars included Little Mike, a finalist for top turf horse and older male, who won the Breedersâ€™ Cup Turf, the Arlington Million and Churchill Downsâ€™s Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. The 3-year-old Dullahan won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and beat older rivals in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar after finishing a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby. And Tapitsfly â€“ owned and bred by Frank Jones Jr., who started in the racing business with Romansâ€™ father and has enjoyed his biggest success with the son â€“ won a pair of those races.
Highest on the Romans agenda for 2013 is a Kentucky Derby victory, and his best shot at success in the biggest race at his hometown track appears to be Dewey Square. The son of Bernardini finished a good third in the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall at Churchill Downs.
As expected, the Eclipse Awards had a definite Bluegrass State feel. Along with the victories by Wise Dan and Romans, Churchill Downs-based Groupie Doll was named top female sprinter and Starlight Racing â€“ which includes Louisvillians Jack Wolf, its managing partner, and father-son team Ed and Clinton Glasscock â€“ raced the unbeaten 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby, who came within one vote of being unanimously selected as Americaâ€™s top juvenile. Shanghai Bobby, the early favorite for Kentucky Derby 139, is scheduled to make his 2013 debut in Saturdayâ€™s Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream.
Although he has an abundance of Eclipse Awards in his overflowing trophy room in his home in the suburbs east of Louisville, D. Wayne Lukas did not earn a new one this weekend. But the four-time Kentucky Derby winner signaled that he will be a significant presence in this yearâ€™s â€œRun for the Rosesâ€ with a pair of victories in Derby prep races over the weekend.
Lukas saddled Oxbow to win Saturdayâ€™s $200,000, Grade III Lecomte at New Orleans Fair Grounds by an impressive 11 Â½ lengths. The son of Awesome Again, who is owned by Bra Kelleyâ€™s Bluegrass Hall LLC, is out of a full sister to two-time Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, so the Derbyâ€™s 1 Â¼-miles should be no problem for this rapidly improving colt.
But Lukas, whose most recent Derby victory was Charismaticâ€™s 1999 upset, unveiled another candidate for his first Derby on the new millennium when Will Take Charge rallied for an upset win in Mondayâ€™s Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park.
The landscape will change many times before the 139th Kentucky Derby is run on May 4, but the serious running on the road to this yearâ€™s renewal starts out in familiar territory. In the third week in January, the road to Americaâ€™s greatest race was clearly in Wayneâ€™s world.