10/02/2014 1:35PM

Hovdey: BC Mile has become an American standard

Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan is preparing for a run at his third straight Breeders' Cup Mile victory.

For all its innovations – huge purses, TV packaging, creative use of apostrophes and the color purple – the Breeders’ Cup did nothing to alter the basic ways in which outstanding Thoroughbreds are measured, whether they are sprinters, 2-year-olds, or older runners over various routes of ground.

The exception was the turf miler. Prior to 1984, there was no such thing in North America. The turf miler was the non-alcoholic beer of the game. There simply was no demand.

The Breeders’ Cup Mile changed all that, adding a true glamour division to the traditional categories. The Mile also became the melting pot of the Breeders’ Cup program, the race in which international inequalities balanced out: American runners flew into the teeth of a European culture that nurtured a great tradition at the distance, while milers from abroad had to play on the turning American courses.

There have been 30 runnings of the Mile. Europeans have won 12, American-based horses 18, and of those 18, it can be argued that four had a hoof in both worlds (Royal Heroine, Steinlen, Silic, and Val Royal). At the same time, stars emerged from both sides of the pond. Miesque and Lure. Da Hoss and Goldikova, and for the past two runnings, the inimitable Wise Dan, who for the first time elevated the American miler to Horse of the Year.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

On Saturday, Wise Dan will set his sights on another Breeders’ Cup Mile when he faces seven in the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. Among those seven are three able-bodied Thoroughbreds who will hardly be intimidated by the champ. Silver Max, trained by Dale Romans, beat him in the 2013 Shadwell when it was transferred to the main track. Seek Again, trained by Bill Mott, came within a head of upsetting Wise Dan last May in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. And Optimizer, from the D. Wayne Lukas barn, ran Wise Dan to a nose in the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga in August.

Meanwhile, out West, Santa Anita Park got a full field of 12 in the City of Hope Mile, to be run over the same firm ground as the Breeders’ Cup Mile, 28 days hence. The purse is $200,000, hardly chump change, but even the most diligent student of form would be hard pressed to find a household name in the bunch.

In fact, California’s best hope for the Breeders’ Cup Mile will be staying in the barn. Tom’s Tribute, a 4-year-old son of Lion Heart, won both the Eddie Read and the Del Mar Mile with enough authority over the summer to earn a break.

“I thought about the Woodbine Mile too late,” said his trainer, Jim Cassidy. “They asked me two or three times about the Shadwell, but that’s on a totally different course.”

By the time Cassidy got through thinking about the City of Hope, he was exhausted. Tom’s Tribute will train up to the Breeders’ Cup Mile, a gap of 69 days between starts.

“The fact the Breeders’ Cup is here makes a big difference,” Cassidy said. “I’ve pushed up his works, and I’m working him a little further. He’ll be a little fresh for the Breeders’ Cup, but that might not be a bad thing.”

Back at Keeneland late Thursday morning, Charlie LoPresti was getting ready to school Wise Dan in the paddock in preparation for the Shadwell. His colic scare from last May could have meant the end of the line, but he bounced back to win the Bernard Baruch in fast time under less-than-ideal conditions.

No one should have been surprised, though. Wise Dan channels the Horse of the Year spirit found in Forego, who battled dicey sesamoids throughout his career; or John Henry, who colicked severely in Japan in 1982; or Cigar, who suffered hoof trouble in early 1996; or Tiznow, who came back from a damaged hip muscle to win a second straight Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Wise Dan lost his favorite training surface when Keeneland replaced its synthetic main track with dirt over the summer. Turns out it didn’t matter one bit.

“By the time he got back, it was about time to go to Saratoga,” LoPresti said. “He trained beautifully up there. Every week, he got better and better. I breezed him a couple of times on the turf, then went to plan B and just kept him on the dirt because I thought he’d get fitter and stronger. People don’t realize that the dirt pulls on them a little more. And besides, every grass horse has to train on dirt at most tracks.”

LoPresti and owner Mort Fink have campaigned Wise Dan for the past two seasons as if everything he does is icing on the cake. For a horse, that’s a good deal if you can get it.

“I have a life besides the racetrack, and I’m not consumed with it all the time, but I think about Wise Dan all the time,” LoPresti said. “I’d love to say I’ll have another horse like this, but I know the chances are slim and none.

“Bill Mott and I were talking about this not too long ago,” he went on. “I was asking him about Cigar. He said they were tempted to run him one more time to make it to $10 million, but he was telling them different, and they just knew.

“I guess one day Wise Dan’s going to lose a step,” LoPresti added. “But I sure don’t see it right now.”