06/27/2013 2:18PM

Churchill Downs: Wise Dan the clear heavyweight in Firecracker

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – His critics argue that Wise Dan, as the reigning Horse of the Year, should further prove his greatness by venturing outside the comfort of his niche, perhaps by running in longer races or dirt races or something other than middle-distance turf events. The Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap, they say, might even be beneath him.

But what cannot be argued is that Wise Dan is a horse of true brilliance, an extraordinary talent, and that it is difficult to fault his trainer, Charlie LoPresti, for having tunnel vision in trying to keep his stable star in contention for a second straight Horse of the Year title.

“The Firecracker just fits our schedule,” said LoPresti, who will be front and center Saturday night when he sends out Wise Dan as the huge favorite and 128-pound highweight in the 23rd running of the $150,000 Firecracker at Churchill Downs. “It’s something to tick us over until we run in some of these bigger races again.”

With John Velazquez back to ride, Wise Dan is scheduled to face seven other older horses, although at least one, Corporate Jungle, is expected to scratch, according to trainer Tom Proctor. That would leave Wise Dan with the inside post in the one-mile turf race, with the remaining six breaking to his outside.

The Firecracker is carded as the ninth of 11 Downs After Dark races. First post is 6 p.m. Eastern, with the Firecracker set for 10:11. HRTV will have coverage.

The Firecracker will be the first time in six races that Wise Dan has stepped down from Grade 1 competition, dating to his five-length romp in the Grade 2 Fourstardave last summer on the Saratoga turf. Bred and owned by Morton Fink, the 6-year-old gelding has earned more than $4 million in a 22-race career marked by numerous breathtaking performances.

LoPresti has maintained all spring, particularly in recent weeks, that Wise Dan is “about as sharp as I can keep him” and that the gelding has not lost anything from his sensational 2012 campaign. His two wins this year, in the Maker’s 46 Mile and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, seem to bear that out.

“We’re sending him down there expecting another big race,” LoPresti said this week from his Keeneland base. “Even carrying all that weight.”

The 128-pound assignment initially left LoPresti considering skipping the Firecracker, but ultimately he decided the benefit of having a relatively easy race during an otherwise demanding campaign outweighed what would have resulted in a lengthy period between starts. The opposition will be in receipt of 11 to 15 pounds.

Al Stall Jr., trainer of Lea, said the spread was enough to take a shot at Wise Dan and to forsake the logical alternative, the Poker at Belmont next Thursday. Lea, the likely second wagering choice with Brian Hernandez Jr. to ride, will carry 117 pounds.

“We reconsidered because the 11-pound difference seems like it gives us enough of a chance,” said Stall, who trains 4-year-old Lea for his breeders, Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. “It’d be great if we could upset him.”

Lea, a winner in 4 of 6 starts, has the kind of speed to stay close to Wise Dan, at least as the race unfolds. The pace figures to be set by longshot Ol Army, who starts from the far outside post with Jon Court aboard, with Wise Dan and Lea prepared to pounce at a moment’s notice.

The others in the Firecracker lineup are Dimension, Finnegans Wake, Daddy Nose Best, and Seruni. Of those, maybe Seruni, with Corey Lanerie riding for trainer Phil Oliver, has the best chance to make at least some impact, as he was the runner-up behind Guys Reward in the 2012 Firecracker.

Wise Dan, winner of the 2011 Firecracker when he carried just 115 pounds in his grass debut, will attempt to become the first two-time winner of the race. He will try to match one of the many feats of his fellow Horse of the Year Curlin, the two-time champion (2007-08) whose 128 pounds in the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap ranks as the heaviest for a winner of a Churchill stakes in recent memory.

The Firecracker anchors a terrific card that also includes the Grade 3, $100,000 Bashford Manor Stakes (race 7) and the $65,000 Kelly’s Landing (race 3). The theme for the night is “Star Spangled,” with fans encouraged to dress in red, white, and blue. General admission is $10.

Although the forecast for Saturday night calls for temperatures in the low 70s and only an outside chance of rain, the Churchill turf course could have some give to it after thunderstorms pounded this area through the middle of the week. The two turf races scheduled for Thursday were transferred to the main track.

Saturday’s card is the next-to-last program of the 38-day meet, with Sunday being closing day.