01/08/2014 2:07PM

2013 Eclipse Awards: Wise Dan



                                                                photo by: Tom Keyser

When a horse loses a race and the loss, which was only a plain, simple, happens-every-race kind of defeat, is news in itself, we are talking about a horse of real fame and accomplishment. We’re talking about a horse like Wise Dan. And yes, Wise Dan lost a race. On Oct. 5, he finished second in the Shadwell Turf Mile, a misnomer for a race that had been rained off grass. Wise Dan, wide on both turns, chased Silver Max all the way around Keeneland’s Polytrack and never caught him. For the first time since a narrow defeat June 16, 2012, in the Stephen Foster Handicap, Wise Dan returned to his stall after a race without first stopping to get his picture taken. It was news. And it opened a vein of skepticism that was mined for the three weeks between the Shadwell and the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

All year – sometimes muffled, sometimes more audibly – a background narrative hummed behind Wise Dan, 2012’s Horse of the Year. Wise Dan was beating overmatched horses while staying in his cozy little niche, turf races between eight and nine furlongs. He was overrated and under-challenged. If Wise Dan was so great, why didn’t he try a long-distance turf race, or race on dirt? Mort Fink, the octogenarian Chicagoan who bred and owns Wise Dan, read the commentary and chuckled. Fink, a resolute pragmatist with decades in racing, had nothing to prove to the world. Wise Dan already had come in for him at astronomical odds.

Fink several years ago culled his broodmare band down to a single horse, Lisa Danielle, whom he could not bring himself to sell because she was named after Fink’s granddaughter. This mare, a most modest racehorse, produced graded stakes winner Successful Dan before foaling a chestnut son of $5,000 stallion Wiseman’s Ferry, the horse who would be named Wise Dan. Wise Dan began his career as a sprinter. He won races from six furlongs up to nine, on turf, dirt, and Polytrack. In Fink’s mind, Wise Dan long ago had demonstrated his versatility.

Now that Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti had discovered what sort of races best suited Wise Dan, why would they go out of their way to put the horse in a position to lose? But the notion that Wise Dan was a one-trick pony in 2013 is misguided. Yes, besides the Shadwell, his six other starts came between eight and nine furlongs on turf, but they are a diverse set of victories. Those six wins came on five different tracks. Keeneland, where Wise Dan won the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile on firm turf in April, is a 7 1/2-furlong sand-based course of average dimensions. Churchill Downs, where Wise Dan won twice, is a seven-furlong oval with tighter turns, and in both his races there, the turf was very wet. He won the Grade 1, nine-furlong Turf Classic in a 4 3/4-length blowout, and the one-mile Firecracker – where Wise Dan truly did tower over the competition – turned out to be the most harrowing race of Wise Dan’s season. In a driving rainstorm, a rival horse and rider nearly put him over the inside hedge at the top of the homestretch; Wise Dan bulled through and won going away. At Saratoga, a different sort of course than Keeneland and Churchill, the good horse King Kreesa stole off to an easy lead in the Fourstardave Handicap. Wise Dan, carrying 12 pounds more than the leader, ran him down with aplomb.

The Woodbine Mile is run around one turn, the only single-bend race on Wise Dan’s 2013 dance card. The turf was firm and fast-playing, and the half-mile split in the Sept. 15 race was 45.44, more than two seconds faster than anything Wise Dan had seen all year. Wise Dan loved it. His stretch run at Woodbine marked the zenith of his campaign, Wise Dan flying past the finish in 1:31.75, a course record without so much as a tap from John Velazquez’s crop. It would be Velazquez, in fact, who supplied the drama in the BC Mile three weeks after Wise Dan’s shock Shadwell defeat. Thrown in an early-race spill on Breeders’ Cup Saturday, Velazquez was under urgent care at a nearby hospital when Wise Dan was called to the post. Jose Lezcano, who had ridden Wise Dan his first two starts of the year, was in the saddle instead, and the first thing that happened when the gates sprang was trouble.

Steadied just after the start, Wise Dan flashed past the stands the first time eighth in a field of 10, farther behind the early leaders than he’d been all year. But you already know how this story turns out. Wise Dan hasn’t lost two races in a row since the spring of 2011. There was wispy-haired Mort Fink, his wife, Elaine, on his arm, back in the Santa Anita winner’s circle, still chuckling.