06/29/2013 11:20PM

Churchill Downs: Wise Dan squeezes past rival to win Firecracker

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Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Wise Dan, the 2012 Horse of the Year, found just enough room along the hedge to surge to victory Saturday night in the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Many of the victories for Wise Dan during his storybook career have been things of beauty.

Not this one.

“It wasn’t a very pretty race,” said a relieved Charlie LoPresti after Wise Dan, the 2012 Horse of the Year, managed to overcome a tough trip, soggy turf, and his 128-pound impost Saturday night in winning the 23rd running of the Grade 2, $168,450 Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs. “It wasn’t very pretty at all.”

On a stormy night marked by huge downpours and lightning strikes, Wise Dan and jockey John Velazquez emerged the winners by two lengths after the 6-year-old gelding finally extricated himself from traffic and quickly spurted clear in the final furlong of the one-mile turf race.

Wise Dan returned $2.40 as the heavy favorite in a field that was reduced to just five starters after three scratches. Lea, the 9-2 second choice, was up late to get second by a half-length over Seruni. The winning time over a yielding course was 1:39.82.

The wet conditions nearly led LoPresti to scratch Wise Dan.

“I was this close to scratching,” he said, holding his finger and thumb an inch apart. “If there’d been one more big downpour, I was going to do it.”

But he didn’t, and fans got to see Wise Dan win ugly. Boxed in for much of the way by Lea and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. after breaking from the inside post, he squeezed through along the hedge nearing the eighth pole while racing inside of Seruni, who had led from the start under Corey Lanerie.

At one point, Wise Dan appeared to brush the hedge, and after surging clear, he bobbled noticeably with about 70 yards to the finish.

Velazquez said the racing surface – and not the trip nor the impost – was his biggest concern. “It had taken a lot of water,” he said. “I was just trying to get him around there.”

He said the other jockeys “were just doing their jobs,” and that he was glad to get through. At a critical point, he said he saw an opening, and “that was it.”

Wise Dan was spotting his rivals 11 to 15 pounds while winning for the seventh straight time and the 10th in his last 11 races. Bred and owned by Morton Fink, the gelding has won 16 of 23 overall, with the Firecracker earnings of $104,439 giving him a bankroll of $4,164,070.

LoPresti has targeted the Breeders’ Cup in November at Santa Anita as the long-term goal for Wise Dan, although he has not declared which race he will choose. Last year, Wise Dan won the BC Mile before being voted Horse of the Year.

LoPresti said he most likely will run Wise Dan in the Aug. 10 Fourstardave and/or the Aug. 31 Bernard Baruch on the Saratoga turf.

The $2 exacta (2-4) paid $5, and the $1 trifecta (2-4-7) returned a mere $4.10.

Attendance was 19,753. Saturday marked the penultimate program of the 38-day spring meet. First post for the closing-day card Sunday is 12:45 p.m. Eastern.