Wise Dan to Miss Big Year-End Dance

Champion Wise Dan drove through a driving rainstorm at Churchill Downs to win the 2013 Firecracker Handicap.

Champion Wise Dan drove through a driving rainstorm at Churchill Downs to win the 2013 Firecracker Handicap.

With a history that stretches well beyond two centuries in North America and much farther in Europe, it is natural that a tradition-enriched sport like Thoroughbred racing would be the subject of an adage developed and tested through the years.

Some personal favorites:

  • You never know where a good horse will come from.
  • You’ve got to be in it to win it.
  • You have to wait for them or they will make you wait.

But given an event in recent days, I would add one sentence to the roster of racing’s truisms:

  • A racetrack or event should never focus a marketing campaign on a single horse.

This came to mind with word that two-time defending Horse of the Year, Wise Dan would miss this year’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita.  Wise Dan, who has a perfect record in four races during his 7-year-old season despite missing a stretch of the late spring and summer following a dangerous bout with colic that required surgery.

The issue for Wise Dan is a non-displaced fracture on the bottom of his cannon bone on the fetlock of his right front foot.  Trainer Charlie LoPresti noticed some swelling in the foot after last week’s stirring victory in the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.  He ordered X-rays that revealed a “half-moon shaped.”

There was never even a second’s hesitation on what to do.  The injury does not require surgery, but Wise Dan does need rest.  And that’s what he will get.

World-renowned equine veterinarian and surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage recommended 30 days of rest and an assessment to determine whether Wise Dan could return to racing next year, when the great gelding would be eight years old.

For the near term there will be no bid for a record-tying third consecutive victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile.  It’s still possible he could earn a third straight “Horse of the Year” title in an already-abbreviated racing season, but it will not be for any accomplishment beyond his four victories in 2014.

The one group that could be at least mildly pleased by this week’s jarring news would be fans of the great Irish miler Goldikova, whose record of three consecutive wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile will stand.

One would assume that Wise Dan’s trip to the sidelines has ended a pre-Breeders’ Cup advertising campaign that focused on Fink’s star as “The Most Interesting Horse in the Word.” America’s Best Racing created a series of videos modeled after the popular Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign.

The campaign was an initiative launched by The Jockey Club and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, that used social media to drive its campaign to make Wise Dan something of a household name heading up to the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

Even when a star Thoroughbred is in the best of hands, Thoroughbred racehorses are flesh-and-blood athletes that can suffer an injury or illness in an instant.  Horses are always a bruise, ankle sprain, fever or sneeze away from missing a big race, and the best bet is to hope – but not count on – a big star making the event.

Some other stars from here or abroad to fill the void left by Wise Dan, whose popularity has continued to grow in a four-year run of excellence in which he has won 16 consecutive stakes races on grass and also collected major wins on dirt and synthetic tracks.  He has won 23 of 31 races – eleven of them Grade I stakes affairs – and his career bankroll has climbed to $7,552,920.

In Wise Dan’s absence, the main equine focus of the event will likely fall on the 3-year-old Shared Belief, the unbeaten champion knocked out of the Kentucky Derby by a foot ailment, and California Chrome, who won the Derby and flirted with a Triple Crown, but brings a two-race losing streak to Santa Anita.

But the focus for Mort Fink and Charlie LoPresti will be on the best horse either man could even dream of having.   As the gelded homebred son of Wiseman’s Ferry benefits from his unexpected rest, both men will scrutinize the champion with the goal of determining where his future should be.

“This horse has been everything to me, especially with the various illnesses I’ve had the last 10 years,” Fink told the Lexington Herald Leader’s Alicia Winze Hughes. “He’s the best medicine I’ve ever had. They’re telling me that the next 30 days will tell the story. If it grows back normally, we’re okay. If it doesn’t I will not run him unless he is 100 percent in any kind of race. He’ll be retired if it doesn’t grow back normal.”

Whether Wise Dan could return to the top level of competition in 2015 under any circumstance is a question, given that he will be eight years old.  But his ongoing run of success has been a marvelous thing to behold.  It would be foolish to bet against that, even taking this injury into consideration, but there will come a time when the champ loses a significant step or two.  Perhaps the injury will hasten the arrival of that moment, or perhaps not.

Wise Dan is truly a special horse and it is a bonus that his future is in the talented and compassionate hands of Fink, LoPresti and Bramlage.  Of Wise Dan’s injury, this is the best thing: we know that trio will do the right thing when decision time comes.