06/14/2012 12:23PM

Foster favorite Wise Dan a rising star in low-key stable

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Wise Dan, winning the Grade 1 Clark in November, is considered by many to be the best older horse in the country. His 117 Beyer from April's Ben Ali is the highest figure of the year.

On many Saturday afternoons at the Trackside offtrack-betting parlor on the Arlington Park property, one can find back in a corner of the main bar and dining room an elderly couple hunkered down with their handicapping paraphernalia. They’re on a first-name basis with the hostess, but other than that, the pair doesn’t stand out from whatever modest crowd is on hand to bet the races, and few of the other patrons would have any idea who they are.

The man’s name is Morton Fink. And Morton Fink owns two of the best horses – if not the two best horses – in the country right now.

Successful Dan returned from an injury layoff of more than one year at the Keeneland meet in April and jumped from an allowance win there to beat a strong field in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes on Kentucky Oaks day. But as good as Successful Dan might be, his younger half-brother Wise Dan probably is better. Wise Dan ended his 2011 season with sharp scores in the Fayette and Clark handicaps, and he launched his 2012 season with a jaw-dropping, track-record-setting performance in the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland. A victory on Saturday in the Stephen Foster Handicap would solidify his status as the best older horse in North America. Successful Dan also was entered in the Foster but would run only if something prevented Wise Dan from starting. His next start will likely come in the Cornhusker Handicap in Iowa or the Suburban in New York.

Fink and his wife, Elaine, aren’t big bettors. Fink calls himself a poor handicapper, says he’s a $10-a-race kind of guy. But Fink is 82 now, and spending a pleasant afternoon playing the ponies is something he and his wife look forward to.

“I’m lucky my wife loves racing,” Fink said. “Most wives, if they have to attend a stakes race, they’ll bring a book. My wife, I taught her to read a Racing Form. I created a monster.”

The Finks have three children, a close-knit family. And to hear him tell it, if not for family ties, the story of the two Dans, Successful and Wise, never would have come to pass. In 1995, Fink paid $29,000 for a yearling filly by Wolf Power. The horse, Fink said, had chronically sore ankles. She won one race and earned about $20,000 before being retired. But the filly, Lisa Danielle, had been named after one of Fink’s grandchildren. Selling felt wrong.

“The only reason I kept her was because of her name, and the fact I love my daughter and granddaughter,” said Fink.

Lisa Danielle is the only broodmare Fink has owned in decades. She has never been bred to a top stallion. Yet six of her offspring have earned more than $100,000 in purses. In 2006, she foaled Successful Dan, a son of the modest stallion Successful Appeal. Wise Dan, Lisa Danielle’s 2007 foal, is by Wiseman’s Ferry, whose stud fee is a mere $3,500. Fink, it so happens, was the managing partner in the ownership group that raced Wiseman’s Ferry, and he retained a share in the horse when Wiseman’s Ferry went to stud.

“By the time I bred Lisa Danielle to him, I had concluded that it didn’t matter who I bred her to: Whatever was working, it was coming from her,” Fink said. “Can you find me another good horse by Wiseman’s Ferry? We had a syndicate of owners that had five of his foals. None of them could outrun me, and I can barely move.”

Fink is a lifelong Chicagoan who grew up in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s far north side. Absent a visual, one could imagine him uttering this blunt, amusing account in a tough, gravelly baritone. Couldn’t be further from the case. Fink is of slight build and his voice is slighter, barely rising above a whisper much of the time. He deflects praise. His affect, for the most part, is one of bemusement, both toward racing and, probably, living itself. This whole situation with Wise Dan and Successful Dan seems to Fink simultaneously improbable and predictable.

“Sure, it seems impossible I’d have these two horses,” he said. “But after all I’ve learned about racing, it’s so typical.”

Here’s what Fink means by that. When an owner pours in millions of dollars trying to find a big horse, there’s a good chance he’s going to come out of the experience millions of dollars less rich and still without the big horse. In the other corner stands a guy who keeps a modest yearling because of her name and winds up with two monsters.

You’ve got to understand – Fink is no newcomer to the game. It’s been 40 years since he owned his first horse. Fink had money for sport through a Chicago-area movie-theater business started by his high-school-educated father and taken over by Fink when his dad died early, at 58. Fink sold out to a chain before videocassettes came and the theater biz cratered. At first he had a partner in horses, Roy Gottlieb. In the mid-70s, the two bought nine yearlings at the Keeneland September sale, paying, Fink said, between $9,000 and $33,000 for each of the horses. That set would all go on to win at least one race. But at the next September yearling sale, Fink and Gottlieb went a little crazy: They spent $330,000 for a colt, $285,000 for a filly. That was big money in the days before the yearling boom of the 1980’s. Fink still smiles thinking back on the spending spree, wondering what in hell they were thinking.

“Believe it or not, the expensive ones were pretty good,” he said. “Then one of them got struck by lightning and died. Another one broke his leg and had to be put down.”

Mostly, though, Fink’s luck has landed on the plus side of the ledger. He and Gottlieb used to buy and sell mares, and one of their females, Producer, was one of the better middle-distance runners in Europe in 1979, winning the Group 1 Prix de la Foret in her last start overseas. Fink and Gottlieb eventually sold her at auction, and the $5,250,000 she brought makes her the 10th-highest priced broodmare ever to sell at Keeneland.

Later came the curious case of Guided Tour, a horse foaled in 1996 who appeared so untalented and disinterested in racing that the first trainer to work with him, Steve Morguelan, told Fink it wouldn’t be fair to take money to work with the horse. Guided Tour wound up in the care of trainer Niall O’Callaghan, whose staff routinely had to wake the horse up to train in the morning. But improbably, Guided Tour got better and better, eventually turning into a reliable graded-stakes dirt-route horse who won almost $2 million in purses. Fink headed the partnership that, after Guided Tour’s fifth-place finish in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic, sold the gelding to Saudi Arabian interests, presumably for top dollar. Two months later, Guided Tour raced for the first time in the Middle East and suffered a catastrophic injury.

Fink has employed nearly a dozen trainers through the years, becoming close with several. His current trainer, Charlie Lopresti, has trained for Fink since the early 1990’s, though the first association between Fink and Lopresti and his wife, Amy, came when the Loprestis began breaking young horses for Fink. The fit between owner and trainer appears ideal. Fink has winnowed his operation down to the bare minimum, and Lopresti would never train more than small string of horses.

“He’s a super sweet guy,” Fink said of Lopresti. “He and Amy are honest, and you can trust them with anything. Charlie’s just different than other people. He doesn’t want to get big. He wants to know the idiosyncrasies of every horse he trains.”

Lopresti, 54, is quick to throw praise back in Fink’s direction, too.

“That’s the kind of people that I like to train for,” he said. “People that are in it for the sport of racing and the good of the horse. Mr. Fink is so much that way. He’s very patient – he never pushes – and you run them when you like. We do mesh pretty well. I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement about where to run these horses and what to do with them.”

Lopresti, a Brooklyn native who has spent as much time at the farm as on the track, cleaves to certain principles: His good horses get winters off, and 2-year-olds almost never race.

“Successful Dan, if I had tried to make a 2-year-old out of him, he would never be the horse he is now,” he said. “He was the most stumble-footed horse you’ve ever seen. He got hurt in the fall of his 2-year-old year, and like the old racetracker said, if you don’t wait on them, they’ll make you wait on them. In the spring of his 3-year-old year he worked a half-mile, and I was like, ‘Holy smokes! Look what happened to him!’ ”

Successful Dan won all three of his starts in the spring of 2009, but then went to the sidelines for the first of two year-plus layoffs, his career put on hold by a stifle injury. Out of action almost 14 months, Successful Dan improved race by race after returning in the summer of 2010. In November, he was disqualified from a victory in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap after causing interference in early stretch. Fink still recalls the incident bitterly.

“The Clark DQ was the biggest disappointment of my career,” he said.

Worse, Successful Dan would not race again for 16 months after injuring his other stifle, this time more seriously. Dr. Larry Bramlage, who worked on the horse, told Fink it was a 50-50 proposition that Successful Dan would return to the races. But return he did. Successful Dan made his latest comeback in a stakes-class allowance race April 6 at Keeneland, and, not nearly fully fit after his long break, he won the race on heart. Back a month later in the Alysheba, Successful Dan appeared to get all the way back to his best form, winning by a length over a good field and earning a top-class Beyer Speed Figure of 110.

While Successful Dan couples ability with a huge heart, Wise Dan – who has so far avoided the injuries that have troubled his half-brother – seems to win his races with sheer brilliance.

“Charlie Lopresti told me from Day 1 that this horse was a freak,” Fink said. “I didn’t believe him.”

Wise Dan, it seems, can do about anything. He is a graded stakes winner sprinting and finished a close sixth as a lightly raced horse in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He has won a graded stakes on turf, a Grade 1 on dirt (last fall’s Clark), and in his 2012 debut he set a 1 1/8-mile track record winning the Ben Ali Stakes on Keeneland’s Polytrack.

“Wise Dan, he’s a pretty phenomenal horse,” Lopresti said. “The way he won the Ben Ali, the Clark, the way he works, he’s pretty special. Successful Dan is almost as brilliant as him in his works, but the difference between the two of them, Successful Dan wins dogfights. Wise Dan, he just blows horses away.”

Lopresti spends a great deal of time worrying about Wise Dan doing too much. The horse simply loves to run, be it during morning training or afternoon racing.

“I’ll tell you, some days when he was younger – and even sometimes now – he had me pulling my hair out,” Lopresti said. “I want him to do less.”

Fink had a cancer scare a few years ago but actually has come through treatment in better shape than when he went into it. Still, he and his wife don’t often travel for races, and Fink doesn’t like to deal with crowds. So it will be interesting, if all goes well, to see where Fink will be found come Breeders’ Cup weekend this fall: at Santa Anita, cheering on the two Dans, or at his spot in the OTB, betting his $10 a race, keeping quiet the fact that those are his horses up on the screen.

Modest mare, big production

Purchased by Fink for $29,000 in 1995, Lisa Danielle has never been bred to a top stallion. Of her eight offspring who have raced, six have earned more than $100,000.

Lisa's Royal Guy 1999 Roy $10,016 61 7 $182,386
Our Royal Dancer 2000 Roy 10,016 19 5 195,070
Aweemaway 2001 Skip Away 10,000 5 0 2,270
Boss Zach 2003 Mutakddim 7,500 20 5 169,966
Courting Elaine 2005 Doneraile Court 3,000 28 6 103,455
Successful Dan 2006 Successful Appeal 25,000 10 7 596,608
Wise Dan 2007 Wiseman's Ferry 3,500 15 9 1,009,601
Casino Dan 2008 Mutakddim 12,500 8 1 30,915