01/10/2013 1:59PM

Horse of the Year: Turf star Wise Dan could join rare company

Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan, winning the Fourstardave in August, scored four of his five 2012 wins on turf. He also won the Ben Ali on Polytrack and finished second by a head in the Stephen Foster on dirt.

If Ian Wilkes wanted to argue that the horse he trains, Fort Larned, should be 2012’s Horse of the Year, he would have ammunition. Fort Larned won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Breeders’ Cup Classic winners almost automatically enter Horse of the Year conversation. By winning the Cornhusker Handicap over high-class Successful Dan, the Whitney Handicap over Ron the Greek and Flat Out, and the BC Classic over Mucho Macho Man, Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Game On Dude, and seven others, Fort Larned staked his claim as the best older male dirt-route horse in North America, which Eclipse Award voters traditionally have favored for Horse of the Year. Older male dirt-route horses have won the award 26 times in the 41 years since the current Eclipse structure was established in 1971.

But Wilkes is not arguing for his horse.

“I think Fort Larned was the best older dirt horse, but no, not Horse of the Year,” he said. “It’s Wise Dan for me.”

Like recent Eclipse voters as a whole, Wilkes has been conditioned to think outside the older male dirt-route box. If Wise Dan wins Horse of the Year on Jan. 19, it will mark the fourth straight year, since Curlin in 2008, voters have passed over the leading older male for a less traditional winner, the longest gap since 1936, when year-end awards were first formalized.

Wise Dan, one of three Horse of the Year finalists along with Fort Larned and I’ll Have Another, would be an historic winner in other ways. As a finalist for Horse of the Year, older male, and male turf horse, he could become the first to sweep those categories since John Henry in 1981, as well as the first gelded Horse of the Year since John Henry. He set a Keeneland Polytrack record in the Ben Ali Stakes and lost by a head in the Stephen Foster on Churchill Downs dirt, but Wise Dan’s most important accomplishments − wins in the Grade 2 Fourstardave by five lengths, the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile by 3 1/4, the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile by 2 1/4, and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile by 1 1/2 – came on turf, a rarity in Horse of the Year history.

Since 1971, only three other horses who raced exclusively or primarily on turf – John Henry in 1981 and 1984, All Along in 1983, and Kotashaan in 1993 – have won Horse of the Year. Another turf horse, Fort Marcy, won in 1970.

[PAST PERFORMANCES: PP's for John Henry, All Along, Kotashaan, Wise Dan]

Those winners all specialized in races at 1 1/4 miles and longer, and Wise Dan would break new ground as the first Horse of the Year turf-miler. Eclipse voters in the past have been willing to let the occasional turf horse into racing’s most exclusive club, but not a turf horse who hadn’t won over historically classic distances.

“Racing is kind of mixed up,” said Bill Nack, a turf writer and Eclipse voter since the early 1970’s. “They covet the mile-and-a-quarter horse for the prestige, but when they go into that sales pavilion they buy the fast miler.”

Nack voted for Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Lure as Horse of the Year in 1993. Kotashaan, the Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, outpolled Lure, 116-105, in that season’s Horse of the Year voting while losing one of the three voting blocs that used to exist.

“To this day, I think it’s a crime he wasn’t a grass champion and Horse of the Year,” said Lure’s trainer, Shug McGaughey.

Interestingly, McGaughey could have benefited this year from a lingering long-distance bias had Point of Entry won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in November instead of finishing a troubled second. Game On Dude would have nailed down Horse of the Year with a BC Classic win, but his seventh-place finish opened the door for a less traditional candidate. BC Turf winner Little Mike failed to make the Horse of the Year finals, though he is a leading older turf male Eclipse candidate, but Point of Entry’s four straight Grade 1 wins at 11 or 12 furlongs plus a one-loss season would have drawn many backers – nearly as many, perhaps, as Wise Dan.

The number of Grade 1 opportunities for middle-distance turf horses has increased, making possible the candidacy of a horse like Wise Dan. The two Grade 1’s Wise Dan won before the BC Mile − the Woodbine Mile and Shadwell Mile − weren’t available for Lure, who during an eight-race campaign in 1993 campaign didn’t even start in a Grade 1 race until the BC Mile.

“I do think that people are considering grass horses more than they did in the past,” McGaughey said. “It’s gotten to be a very, very competitive class. Whether it’s a mile or a mile and a half, there’s a lot of money in that category now.”

Turf racing wasn’t widely popularized in North America until the mid-1950’s. Nack came of age when grass courses were becoming widespread for the first time.

“Before Round Table was Horse of the Year in 1958, there were no horses of the year that ran on grass,” Nack said. “In order to do anything in America, even if you were dealing with horses with foreign pedigrees, you just had to run and do things on the dirt. America was very provincial that way and didn’t really seem to care. That feeling really persisted into the fifties.”

Ben Lindheimer in Chicago and John Schapiro of Laurel Park did as much as anyone to introduce turf racing to U.S. fans and bettors, Nack said. Arlington had the Stars and Stripes and Arlington Handicap as turf fixtures and moved the famed American Derby to grass. Laurel introduced the D.C. International in 1951, immediately attracting intriguing new overseas competitors.

“Even conservative Belmont Park, which views change with a cautious eye, experimented with turf racing this year,” wrote Albion Hughes in the Nov. 15, 1954, edition of Sports Illustrated. “Now the pendulum is swinging back, and it is possible . . . that in five years we will have programs equally divided between turf and dirt races. The public, the horsemen, and the horses like turf racing.”

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Fort Marcy in 1970 parlayed wins in the International, the United Nations, the Bowling Green, and the Man o’ War into Horse of the Year, becoming the first turf-specialist winner of the award. (That was the last year that two organizations, Daily Racing Form and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, named separate horses of the year. DRF chose Fort Marcy, but the TRA chose Personality.) But obviously, with only four other turf winners since, voters have not regularly turned to grass horses, even when they do not go for the best older dirt male.

In years lacking a suitable older dirt male, the default candidate first becomes a standout filly or mare, especially one who has beaten males. Havre de Grace, Zenyatta, and Rachel Alexandra have won Horse of the Year the last three seasons, and Royal Delta could have been a contender in 2012 had she ventured outside female-restricted competition with more success than in the Dubai World Cup, where she finished ninth. Lady’s Secret won the Whitney on the way to Horse of the Year in 1986, and Azeri won Horse of the Year in 2002 winning only in sex-restricted competition.

The door opens for an exotic Horse of the Year winner only when no older dirt male or female comes forward. There was 2-year-old Favorite Trick in 1997, and the quartet of grass horses, the most unlikely of whom was the French filly All Along. That year’s Arc de Triomphe winner, All Along didn’t even show up in North America until mid-October 1983, but in quick succession she won the Rothmans International at Woodbine by two lengths, the Turf Classic at Aqueduct by almost nine, and Laurel’s International by 3 1/4. Bates Motel was the leading West Coast older dirt male that season (and champion older male), and Slew o’ Gold, a 3-year-old, headed the East Coast handicap contingent. Devil’s Bag, a 2-year-old, won all five of his starts and four stakes, but voters went for the turf filly.

“That year the hot horse was Devil’s Bag, and for sure it was a surprise when All Along won,” said her trainer, Patrick Biancone. “I think she was a deserving winner. A good horse is a good horse anywhere, but people didn’t think so much about turf horses then.”

Wise Dan has been tucked far from the public eye in the two months since his memorable BC Mile win. Trainer Charles Lopresti shipped him back to Kentucky after the Breeders’ Cup, and Wise Dan has been resting on Lopresti’s farm outside Lexington ever since. Lopresti runs a horse or two at Turfway Park over the winter, but most of his stock is taking it easy this time of year, getting away from the grind of racetrack life.

Every day, as long as heavy rain isn’t falling, Wise Dan gets turned out of his stall into a paddock a little before noon. He stays outside until about 4.

“He takes it easy pretty good,” Lopresti said. “He knows the difference between what he’s doing here and what he was doing the rest of the year. His belly is let down now, but he’s an active horse. His hair’s cut a lot longer. He doesn’t look as slick and shiny and pretty as he does at the track. Believe me, he’s being managed, but most owners would be horrified to see him all dirty and plastered with mud. His shoes are off, his feet and all the nail holes in them have grown out. The cold weather on his legs, the mud in his feet, the green grass – that’s all the stuff we try to simulate at the racetrack. He might be Horse of the Year, but he’s like any other horse with four legs, a mane, and a tale. He has to have time to be like that.”

By the time Eclipse Award winners are announced, Wise Dan will have been moved to Keeneland to begin training for his 2013 campaign, which, if things go according to early plans, will begin April 12 in the Maker’s Mark Mile, another one-mile grass race. Nothing has been decided beyond that race, but his 2013 could unfold with more thought given toward Horse of the Year than it was in 2012.

Following the Stephen Foster, Lopresti and owner Mort Fink plotted a turf campaign for the second half of the season that would end in the BC Mile, and that plan was revisited only after Wise Dan won the Shadwell in October and it became apparent Horse of the Year was in play. Were Wise Dan a stallion prospect, choosing to run in the BC Classic might been more tempting, but even then, Lopresti said he believes he and Fink would have stuck to turf and not changed course to further Wise Dan’s Horse of the Year candidacy.

“I think a lot of times people try to do what’s right for the business end of things, and that doesn’t work out,” Lopresti said. “I know a lot of people said I should have run him in the Classic, but he hadn’t had a breeze on the dirt since before the Stephen Foster. I think it would have been crazy to go for the Classic since we hadn’t trained him that way.”

Fink, a 40-year veteran owner and breeder whose only remaining horses are Wise Dan and his stakes-winning brother Successful Dan, remains surprised that Wise Dan widely is labeled a turf horse. Wise Dan has one win on a fast dirt track, two on wet dirt, five on Polytrack, and five on turf.

“There are knowledgeable people talking about him like he’s a mile grass horse,” Fink said. “I view him as a horse that can do anything. When you look at the Racing Form and you see who has the top Beyer figure on Polytrack, who has it? Wise Dan.”

Look, also, at the chart-caller’s short comment from the June 16 Stephen Foster Handicap, Wise Dan’s only dirt race and loss in 2012: “Roughed, drifted,” it reads. Wise Dan lost by about a foot while giving four pounds to Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek. 

“He should have won the Stephen Foster,” Lopresti said.

If he had, Wise Dan might be a near-unanimous Horse of the Year choice, with Grade 1 wins on turf and dirt, like the last gelding to win the award, John Henry. Though John Henry won 39 races and Wise Dan has made only 20 starts, the multiple dimensions of the two invite comparison, though in reverse chronology. When John Henry was Horse of the Year in 1981 he won six stakes on turf and two on dirt; when he repeated in 1984, he lost both his dirt stakes starts and scored all his important wins on turf. For Wise Dan, 2012 offers a chance to expand the repertoire, to silence skeptics who question the validity of a turf-miler Horse of the Year résumé.

“We’re not going to stay solely on the grass this year,” Fink said. “We’re going to test that idea some people have that he’s only a grass horse.”

Turf horses who won Horse of the Year

Horse Year Turf record Dirt record
John Henry 1981 6 for 7 2 for 3
All Along 1983 4 for 7 No starts
John Henry 1984 6 for 7 0 for 2
Kotashaan 1993 6 for 10 No starts

*Since 1971