11/08/2012 2:37PM

Hovdey: Milers way out in front

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Tom Keyser
An argument could be made that Wise Dan (above) and Frankel - both milers - are the best horses on their respective continents.

Don’t look now, but the two best horses of 2012 in North America and Europe were milers.

We’ll pause for a moment to let the hide-bound foundations of the game stop shaking . . . .

Over there Frankel ruled, ending a perfect 14-race career with five wins this year, while in the U.S. and Canada it was all about Wise Dan, beaten only once in six starts. Frankel is a cold cinch to win his second straight Horse of the Year honor at the Cartier Awards ceremonies on Nov. 13 in London. Wise Dan, on the other hand, must wait until Jan. 19, 2013, when Eclipse Award for 2012 Horse of the Year will be handed out in Miami.

It won’t be unanimous, since Royal Delta and I’ll Have Another have ardent fans. But just the chance of an accomplished miler as Horse of the Year made John Nerud smile, even though he was smiling though the anxieties of nine days without power from local utilities for his Long Island home.

“We’re in a helluva mess here,” Nerud said Wednesday morning. “The lights went off a week ago Monday. I’ve got a big generator, but it eats gas like a Hummer. I guess I’ve got about 400 gallons left, but that won’t last long.”

Nerud is 99. He trained his way into the Hall of Fame with Dr. Fager, Gallant Man, Intentionally, and Ta Wee, and he got this far in large part because he never did so much as brush his teeth without a plan. If the man who promised a fuel delivery does not come through, Nerud will be on a plane to Saratoga Springs, where he’ll wait things out at a hotel.

The power crisis cut into Nerud’s ability to enjoy the Breeders’ Cup as much as he would have liked. As an original director of the organization, Nerud was ground floor on everything from race choice to marketing. It was Nerud who insisted that the Breeders’ Cup program include an event at one mile on the grass.

“I said you can’t have a Breeders’ Cup without a mile, because a mile usually indicates the sires,” Nerud said. “That’s what I bred – milers. I like to think I left a mark on the breed.”

Let’s go ahead and agree that he did, if only because Nerud was responsible for the breeding of the greatest American miler in history, Dr. Fager. He also bred Fappiano, winner of the Met Mile, and champion sire Cozzene, winner of the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Aqueduct.

It was Dr. Fager, though, who set new standards for the ability to carry sprinter’s speed a distance of ground, and it was Dr. Fager mares whose influence was still pervasive long after his untimely death in 1976.

In a career of 22 starts, Dr. Fager had five races at a mile. As a wild-running 2-year-old he finished a rank second to Successor in the 1966 Champagne. In the 1967 Gotham he beat Damascus by half a length, won the Withers by six and the Arlington Classic by 10. In 1968, six races into his perfect Horse of the Year campaign, Dr. Fager carried 134 pounds to a 10-length victory in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, stopping the clock in 1:32 1/5. No horse has run a faster mile on dirt in the 44 years since.

Frankel, with family to die for, should follow the Nerud theory into stud. Wise Dan, on the other hand, is a gelding who will need to be content making a considerable mark on the racetrack. Between them, Wise Dan and Frankel ran seven races at a mile in 2012 and won them all.

On May 19 in the Lockinge Stakes, run at Newbury race course, Frankel made light of the left-to-right straightaway to win his season debut by five.

On June 19 in the Queen Anne Stakes, on the first day of the Royal Ascot meet, Frankel uncorked a beauty over the right-to-left straight course, winning by 11.

Then on Aug. 1 in the Qipco Sussex Stakes at Goodwood, in what was destined to be the final mile of his career, Frankel banked smoothly around one clockwise turn to win by six.

Across the pond 10 days later, on Aug. 11 at Saratoga, Wise Dan got into the act with his first mile race of the season over a yielding, seven-furlong inner turf course in the Fourstardave Handicap. He won by five lengths.

On Sept. 16 at Woodbine, Wise Dan went international to take the Woodbine Mile in Toronto by 3 1/4 lengths over a firm, one-turn, counterclockwise layout that ranks as North America’s finest.

On Oct. 6 at Keeneland, in the Shadwell Turf Mile over a sand-based, seven-furlong course, Wise Dan swept to the lead and won geared down by 2 1/4 lengths.

Then last Saturday, in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita over seven-furlong course that played like Wimbledon, Wise Dan’s 1:31.78 to win by a length and a half was the fastest eight furlongs since turf miles were first run there in 1986.

For those who would wring their hands in anguish, moaning that milers devalue the classic dimensions of the breed, know that both Frankel and Wise Dan proved they can do other things.

While Frankel was gearing up for his 2012 debut, Wise Dan went to work in April, winning the nine-furlong Ben Ali Handicap over Keeneland’s all-weather main track. Three days before Frankel’s Queen Anne, that was Wise Dan at Churchill Downs finishing a troubled second in the nine-furlong Stephen Foster, beaten only a head by Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek. And while Wise Dan was concentrating on his season-ending string of fabulous miles, Frankel was stretching a point to make a point, winning the Juddmonte International at York on Aug. 22 and the Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot on Oct. 20, both at a testing mile and a quarter.

“I don’t know how the classic distance in this country got to be a mile and a quarter,” Nerud said. “It once was a mile and a half. I suppose the Kentucky Derby had something to do with it, and a mile and a quarter is a real test. But it doesn’t point out the best horse like the mile does – and do you know why?”

No, why?

“They have to tiptoe a mile,” he said. “There’s not much of ‘coming off the pace’ to it. You’ve got to be in the hunt, which means you’ve got to have a horse with speed that can carry it.

“I think eventually we’ll get around to seeing a miler who’s champion,” Nerud said, and by champion he meant Horse of the Year. “I guess we’ll see what they do with Wise Dan.”