Derby Preps Begin, Honors for Wise Dan and Media to Begin 2016

Churchill Downs’ Firecracker is now named in honor of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, shown with jockey John Velazquez after winning the 2014 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.  Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs’ Firecracker is now named in honor of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, shown with jockey John Velazquez after winning the 2014 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

With an unforgettable 2015 that included a Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown triumph by American Pharoah and the first Breeders’ Cup at Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course fresh in our minds, many fans are wondering if the New Year, now just underway, can come close to matching the thrills and drama of the year that just passed.

Your guess is as good as mine, but we’re off to a busy start on the new racing year. Our first visit of 2016 focuses on the new Derby road and honors for good work in 2015 and beyond.

The first points scored in the New Year in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series that will determine eligibility in the 2016 “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs belong to Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence’s Flexiblity, who won the Grade III Jerome Stakes at New York’s Aqueduct on Saturday, January 2.

Along with being the first Derby points race and first 2016 stakes race for the crop of Thoroughbreds that, for competition purposes, turned three on New Year’s Day, the win by Flexibility flattered Shadwell Stables’ Mohaymen, one of last year’s most exciting 2-year-olds.

After running second to Mohaymen late in the year in both the Grade II Nashua and Remsen, Flexibility took advantage of the absence of that rival to score an easy 4 1/4-length victory in the mile-and-70-yard over Jerome under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

Trainer Chad Brown is mulling the next step for the son of Bluegrass Cat. An early guess would be that Brown will, at least for now, try to keep his colt away from the unbeaten Mohaymen, who is training in the warm Florida weather for Lexington-born trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. But the Jerome victory has put Flexibility 10 points closer to the Churchill Downs starting gate for Kentucky Derby 142 Presented by Yum! Brands on Saturday, May 7.

Spring Meet announced by the Louisville track on Tuesday that the $2 million-guaranteed Kentucky Derby and the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks, the Derby’s sister race for 3-year-old fillies, headline the schedule of stakes races for Churchill Downs from April 30 to July 2.

But one of the most interesting events of that roster of 26 stakes races with total purses of $8.25 million is an event now named after a recently-retired racing hero. Churchill Downs has renamed its former Firecracker, a 1 1/16-mile race for older horses on the turf, to honor Morton Fink’s two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan.

The renamed Wise Dan also occupies a new spot on the Spring Meet racing schedule as one of five stakes races schedule on a June 18 “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Old Forester” night racing program headed by the Grade I, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap.

After a solid, but unspectacular, launch of Wise Dan’s career on dirt, trainer Charlie LoPresti decided to try to the grass with the gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry in the 2011 running of the Firecracker. Wise Dan easily won that race and went on to complete his career with a record of 23-2-0 in 31 races and earnings of $7,552,920. Several shining moments came at Churchill Downs, where Wise Dan twice won the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, notched another Firecracker win and moved to the dirt to take the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare in 2011.

Wise Dan was best known for a pair of wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and was aiming toward a bid for a third consecutive win in the race when he suffered a torn tendon prior to its 2014 running. Along with the Horse of the Year honors, Wise Dan earned a pair of Eclipse Awards as turf champion and champion older horses.

“He’s been a great horse, and we’ve had so much fun with him. And we’re proud of him. I’ve often thought that someday, somebody would name a race after him,” LoPresti said. “I’m glad that Churchill was the first to come up with it because he’s won so many races there and is such a big part of Churchill Downs.”

The champ is enjoying the easy life of retirement on Forest Lane Farm, owned by LoPresti and his wife, Amy. If all goes well, Wise Dan could return to Churchill Downs to greet fans at the running of the race that now carries his name.

Other breaking news just after the first of the year included the announcement of winners of 2015 Eclipse Awards for members of the media, which honor outstanding efforts by electronic and print journalists. And there are many Kentucky-connected members of the group being honored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.

Two represent the Louisville Courier-Journal as longtime turf writer Jennie Rees was honored in the Feature/Commentary category for a piece on Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans and columnist Tim Sullivan earned a News/Enterprise Eclipse for an investigative piece on the suicide of Hub Johnson – an assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen – who took his life in advance of the publication by the New York Times of allegations against his employer raised by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the newspaper.

The Eclipse earned by Rees, who left the paper last fall, was her fifth. Sullivan’s Eclipse is his first.

Another Kentuckian to earn an Eclipse Award is Lexington’s Mary Simon, who earned her third honor in the Audio/Multi-Media and Internet category for her 2015 feature on the 100th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby victory by Regret, the first of only three fillies to win the race.

Digital Kitchen won the Eclipse for Television-Feature for a profile of veteran Ohio-based jockey Perry Ouzts, which aired on AT& T U-Verse Sports. The feature was directed by Brad and John Hennegan, brothers who earned an Eclipse in 2008 for their feature “First Saturday in May.”

And NBC Sports won its 12th Eclipse for Live Television for its coverage of American Pharoah’s win in the Belmont Stakes that wrapped up the first Triple Crown since 1978.

The Media Eclipse honorees will receive their awards at the 45th Eclipse Awards dinner on Satuary, January 16 at Florida’s Gulfstream Park. Hearty congratulations to all of the Eclipse winners. VT