10/17/2014 2:06PM

Hovdey: The show goes on without its star

Katey Barrett
A 9-year-old John Henry was scheduled to be the star of the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984, but like the 7-year-old Wise Dan this year, he was forced out of the event with an injury.

Back in the days before the Breeders’ Cup was a smoothly running, well-oiled machine, there was no way to get the most famous horse in America into the inaugural event without his owner forking over a $400,000 supplementary fee to run in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf and then kissing that fee goodbye. At that point, such fees were not added to the purse.

The horse was John Henry, the owner was Sam Rubin, and the pressure was intensely applied for Rubin to pay the fee by such Breeders’ Cup luminaries as John Nerud, Leslie Combs, and D.G. Van Clief Jr., all of them desperate to guarantee that the first Breeders’ Cup went forth with the John Henry seal of approval.

Rubin relented and decided to make the nonrefundable pre-entry payment of $133,000, but not before he was advised by trainer Ron McAnally that there was a minor issue detected in one of John Henry’s ankles after his most recent workout. McAnally said he’d know more in a day or so, which was reasonable. But the fee deadline was inflexible, so Rubin bit the bullet and sent the check. Two days later, it was announced that John Henry would not make the race.

“That’s racing, and that’s life,” Rubin said at the time, “but I’ve lost $133,000 before, in gambling or in business.”

Charlie LoPresti was reminded of the John Henry tale this week, hard on the heels of his announcement that Wise Dan will have to miss a crack at a third straight win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 1. LoPresti’s reaction?

“Oh, man, I’d forgotten about that,” he said. “Now I don’t feel quite so bad.”

LoPresti feels bad enough, though, for owner Mort Fink, for jockey John Velazquez, for the legion of Wise Dan fans, and for the event itself, which now will have a Breeders’ Cup lite feeling without the presence of the bona-fide superstar and two-time Horse of the Year.

Wise Dan’s defection is only the most recent in a relentless march of good horses to the sidelines during the 2014 season. Loyal followers of the game awaken each day wondering who’s next, then check the headlines and the work tabs to make sure that California Chrome is still cranking out the gallops, that Shared Belief is working bullets at Golden Gate, that Close Hatches has bounced back from her dud in the Spinster, that Beholder is happy as a clam, and that Main Sequence has eaten up like a good boy for Graham Motion.

:: 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

So, the show will go on, although when it comes time to the run Mile, LoPresti is forgiven if he finds something else to do, like mend a fence, check the sumps, or go sit in the corner of Wise Dan’s stall and dream of what might have been.

“It’s just now gotten to the point where I can actually talk about it,” LoPresti said. “It was so upsetting to me that this horse was doing this good, coming out of what was one of the best races he’d ever run.

“I’ve been around him so long, I know every nook and cranny on him,” the trainer added. “Coming out of that last race, to watch him gallop, you’d never know there was anything. But to watch him at a jog, I’d say he was barely a 1 out of 5 off. Not even a 1. But it was enough.”

The problem is at the bottom of the cannon bone of Wise Dan’s right foreleg.

“It’s a half-moon crack right there at the base of the condyl, where the bottom bone smacks the top bone, like a jackhammer,” LoPresti said. “Most of that probably will heal, but there’s one little place in the crack that’s got a little lip, a separation. The vets didn’t paint me a real rosy picture. They said they didn’t want me to have false hope. There’s a chance it will heal all the way, but there’s a good chance it won’t.

“I’m sure there are a lot of claiming horses who run with stuff like this,” LoPresti noted. “But a horse of this caliber, I wouldn’t want to run him anymore. He’s been way too good to me to monkey around with and say, ‘Let’s try this or that.’

“I’m not so sure old age didn’t get to him,” LoPresti added. “Those bones might be getting a little brittle. You got to think about all those breezes and gallops and all he’s done. He’s never had an issue in any of his legs. I’m sure if I’d breezed him one more time, he really would have been lame and given him no chance at all to make it back.”

At the age of 10 in 1985, two-time Horse of the Year John Henry attempted a comeback but sustained another soft-tissue injury. He never raced again. LoPresti will not know for some time if he can try bringing Wise Dan back in 2015 at age 8. In the meantime, LoPresti is prepared to get lots of “help” in the effort.

“I know everybody and their brother is going to try and sell me something to heal Wise Dan,” LoPresti added. “But let me tell you – Mother Nature, green grass, sunshine, and time are the only things that gets you through those kind of injuries. And if he doesn’t make it back, there’s lots of things he can do the rest of his life.”