11/02/2012 9:56AM

Breeders' Cup Mile: Wise Dan headlines clash of titans

Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan will try to enhance his Horse of the Year credentials in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The Breeders’ Cup calling its races “World Championships” often strains belief. But when it comes to the Breeders’ Cup Mile, the nomenclature feels just about right.

With Frankel retired, Excelebration, Wise Dan, and Moonlight Cloud probably are the three best turf milers in the world, and they square off Saturday at Santa Anita in a blockbuster edition of the $2,125,000 BC Mile.

The race drew a field of nine and also includes 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who is making his first start since February. Several other capable entrants add depth. Lightning-quick Obviously has emerged as the leading California grass miler this fall and was supplemented into the race at a cost of $100,000. Argentine import Suggestive Boy – supplemented early in the year for $25,000 – returns to turf, his preferred surface, after starts on dirt and Polytrack over the summer. Mr. Commons and Jeranimo long have been fixtures in the California turf-mile division, and the connections of Willcox Inn are taking a shot after a solid runner-up finish behind Wise Dan last month at Keeneland.

Wise Dan, a candidate for Horse of the Year, is the rare Thoroughbred who carries his form between three racing surfaces. His 2012 debut, on Polytrack, produced a 10 1/2-length win in the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland. Conceding weight, Wise Dan was edged in the June 16 Stephen Foster Handicap on dirt by BC Classic contender Ron the Greek, after which his connections, trainer Charlie Lopresti and owner-breeder Morton Fink, turned their attention to turf.

At Saratoga, Wise Dan blistered a decent field in the Fourstardave Handicap, winning by five lengths after slipping through on the rail over a boggy course and delivering an explosive kick. Cityscape, winner of the $5 million Dubai Duty Free this spring, tried to kick home with Wise Dan in the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 16 and could not come close to matching his finish. Lopresti and Fink wavered on whether to train Wise Dan up to the Mile or run in the Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 6 at Keeneland, settling on a start rather than extra work and coming away with another comfortable Grade 1 win.

“If Wise Dan wins the Breeders’ Cup Mile, he should be considered one of the best horses in the world,” Lopresti said on a recent conference call.

Wise Dan and jockey John Velazquez break from post 2, and though Wise Dan has tactical speed, Lopresti wants nothing to do with Obviously, who figures to be winging alone on the front end.

“I don’t want to be the sacrificial lamb going out chasing him, and I don’t think Johnny does either,” Lopresti said. “I’m more concerned with closers than who might be in front. I just want to avoid trouble and get a clean trip and a fair chance.”

Wise Dan should get the jump on Excelebration and Moonlight Cloud, European horses who will be facing a faster pace than they’ve ever encountered. But the connections of both horses look forward to the fast course conditions, with Excelebration favored to beat Wise Dan in overseas early-betting markets.

A 4-year-old, Excelebration is from the same crop as Frankel, and five of his six losses in a 14-start career have come in races Frankel won. With Frankel moving up to 1 1/4-mile races, Excelebration won two Group 1 miles, the Jacque le Marois in France and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes just two weeks ago in England. In both recent wins, Excelebration – who had been chasing the early leaders in many of his 2012 starts – was restrained by jockey Joseph O’Brien until the final quarter mile, when he was let loose for one big burst.

“He has form on all types of ground, really, and he has speed,” trainer Aidan O’Brien said. “We know we’re bringing him back quickly, but he seems to be in good shape. We’re not going to know how he’s handled things until we see Saturday.”

Moonlight Cloud, a 4-year-old filly bred and owned by George Strawbridge, gives trainer Freddie Head his fifth straight starter in the Mile, a race he won from 2008-2010 with Goldikova. Moonlight Cloud has worked mainly as a top-class sprinter, winning eight of 14 starts, and she came within a head of defeating Black Caviar in June.

While Moonlight Cloud has won just one of her three starts going one mile, she had significant trouble in the 2011 English 1,000 Guineas, finishing seventh as the favorite, and in the Marois, where she was fourth, Moonlight Cloud was squeezed and pushed back to last a quarter-mile from home.

“She was completely stopped, and even the jockey thought he had no chance,” Head said. “When she saw daylight she just flew. I really think with a good run she could have won.”

Animal Kingdom has a win and a close second in his two starts on turf, and his preparations for a comeback following a long layoff have gone smoothly, trainer Graham Motion said, but Animal Kingdom’s best performances have come at nine furlongs and farther.

“I think this is shorter than his optimal distance, and that is definitely a concern,” Motion said. “But coming back from a layoff with a fresher horse, you can get away with things.”

Irish import Obviously has won all three of his starts since being moved from sprints to two-turn miles, but in the Del Mar Mile he held on by a nose to beat Mr. Commons, and last month in the Arroyo Seco Mile at Santa Anita, BC Turf entrant Trailblazer, who has nothing like the speed of Wise Dan, Excelebration, and Moonlight Cloud, closed to within a half-length at the finish. Obviously’s best chance probably is to open an advantage so wide the closers can’t bridge it.

But these are no ordinary closers – these are the best turf milers in the world.