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The Sustained Joy of Watching Wise Dan

Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan took his first steps toward greatness in a work under jockey Jon Court under the Churchill Downs turf course on June 28, 2011.

Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan took his first steps toward greatness in a work under jockey Jon Court under the Churchill Downs turf course on June 28, 2011.

Some of life’s special moments are instantly recognizable, while others require a little time and distance to allow one to truly appreciate what made a moment notable.

One of those moments came to mind on Saturday, shortly after reigning two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan came from a seemingly impossible position to score a dazzling last-to-first victory in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile, the first $1 million race in the history of Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course.

Wise Dan broke slowly and was briefly last in the early going of the Keeneland turf race and Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In event.  He eagerly moved up following the tardy start, but was blocked for a time behind horses before he swung out to pass six horses in a quarter-mile in one of his most dramatic wins.

It was Wise Dan’s fourth victory without a loss in 2014 and his 14th consecutive win on turf.  Just as important, it was his second since the 7-year-old superstar was knocked out of action in late spring by surgery that followed a dangerous bout with colic.

His pair of wins since that ailment were his 14th and 15th on the grass – a segment of his career that was launched with a victory in the Churchill Downs’ Grade II Firecracker Handicap on July 4, 2011.  His only defeats in 22 races since that day were a fourth-place finish to reigning turf champion Gio Ponti in the 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile, a narrow loss to Ron the Greek on dirt in the 2012 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs and a runner-up finish to Silver Max in last fall’s Shadwell, which was moved from turf to Keeneland’s former synthetic Polytrack surface following heavy rain.

Wise Dan’s run of success over four calendar years includes victories in the past two runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Mile and earned owner/breeder Mort Fink’s star a half-dozen Eclipse Awards, a collection highlighted by back-to-back solid gold statuette’s that honored him as “Horse of the Year.”

Eleven of his 31 career starts have come at Churchill Downs – a number that includes four races on dirt – and record beneath the Twin Spires is currently 7-1-0.  He’s last-gasp Shadwell Turf Mile win lifted his career slate to 23-2-0 in 31 races and pushed his earnings to $7,552,920.

The numbers are fantastic and he is 2014 run has put him on track for possible run Breeders’ Cup Mile on Nov. 1  at Santa Anita and a bid to tie the great Irish mare Goldikova’s record of three consecutive victories in that race.   Regardless of what happen from here on out, trainer Charlie Lopresti’s star is on a fast track to enshrinement in Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame.

Of all of 7-year-old geldings magical performances over the past four seasons, my favorite was one of those aforementioned small moments that occurred he became   It occurred on Tuesday, June 28, 2011, just a few days before Wise Dan took a huge career step with his victory in his turf debut in the Churchill’s Firecracker.

Charlie Lopresti, trainer of six-time Eclipse Award winner Wise Dan.

Charlie Lopresti, trainer of six-time Eclipse Award winner Wise Dan.

It occurred on a quiet Tuesday in June, 2011 – the 28th, to be exact.

Lopresti had been considering a run on grass for Wise Dan, who to that point had then raced nine times and had reached the winner’s circle on four occasions, with the most prominent being a triumph in the Grade III Phoenix Handicap on Keeneland’s Polytrack.  Wise Dan was coming off back-to-back losses on the Churchill Downs dirt in the Grade III Alysheba, in which he had finished eighth, and a seven-furlong allowance race in which ran fourth as a strong favorite.

LoPresti felt his horse has a great deal of talent, but he was not getting it done on the dirt.  So he contemplated taking a swing at success on the grass.  Wise Dan traveled west on Interstate 64 from his Keeneland base that morning, and Lopresti gave jockey Jon Court a leg-up into the saddle for a planned half-mile breeze.  Working around the dogs – cones placed in the middle of the course to prevent additional wear and tear on the inside of the course – Lopresti’s star looked, at first, a little uncertain about his new footing.  But any discomfort was fleeting and Wise Dan finished with a rush to cover the four furlongs in :48.80.

If you’re around horses long enough, you will have an opportunity to see a either a race, a work or, perhaps, the sight of a horse that is so physically striking that it results in a special sensation – a tingle, if you will.  It’s not unlike the feeling when one hears “My Old Kentucky Home” each year in the minutes leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

You might not immediately know why the moment is extraordinary; you just know that it is.

And that’s how I recall watching Wise Dan swiftly acclimate to a new surface that sunny June morning at Churchill Downs.  I would not pretend to have an inkling that the work I watched that day was a precursor to the brilliance of the Wise Dan would soon see and now know.

But I surely thought that if LoPresti decided to run, he’d be pretty salty in the Firecracker.

“All we wanted to really do is see what he felt like when he kicked it down the lane,” a beaming LoPresti said that morning.  “He finished up real strong – I think he came home the last quarter in something like :23 (seconds) and change. He really wasn’t sure what to do down the backside because he’d never been on it before.”

The early steps Wise Dan took that day blossomed into a career that already ranks among the greatest in U.S. racing history and has the potential to improve.  It was a privilege to watch Wise Dan that morning, and it remains so on every joyous occasion to see him compete or train since.

LoPresti has publicly mentioned the possibility of a run by Wise Dan on dirt in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic rather than a bid for the Mile triple, but Fink has leaned toward the latter. The Classic bid is tempting because Wise Dan is training brilliantly over Keeneland’s new dirt track, but if the Mile is the ultimate choice, Wise Dan could still complete the year on dirt in Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare, a Grade I race he won as 4-year-old in 2011.

“It’s a hard decision to make,” LoPresti said after the Shadwell Turf Mile win. “He’s 7-years-old and a horse of his age, you don’t know how many more races he has in him. You don’t want to ask the impossible of him, but I think he deserves some consideration for the Breeders’ Cup Classic because of the way he’s trained on dirt.”

Given the record of LoPresti and Fink, there’s little doubt that the decision will be based on what they believe is best for their horse.  And, after his long run of brilliance, his admirers can be confident that, regardless of where he runs next, Wise Dan will provide them with his best.

And Wise Dan at his best, for four years and counting, has been very special indeed.

Photos by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs