10/17/2014 3:06PM

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.”

john g More than 1 year ago
DRF Plus members: If you spend a good amount every year on DRF products, do they give you drf plus free where you can read the articles? wasn't the intent to stop the free-loaders.
Ernie Munick More than 1 year ago
Jay, notice the similarity in silks between the Old Man's and Shared Belief's? Let's hope the youngster has another five seasons...
Scott Scheib More than 1 year ago
Comparing great horses of different eras is like comparing NFL quarterbacks in the same manner. It's just noise. They are apples and oranges. Both great but in different ways and in times where JH raced more but WD dominated every selected race. The real issue is that very few horses make into 7 racing years in this era. They are just more fragile.
Lee Thorsgard More than 1 year ago
A bit short on the reading comprehension are we. Re-read Charlie LoPresti's statements. The first one incorrectly quoted was, "I'm sure there are a lot of claiming horses who run with this stuff, but a horse of this caliber, I wouldn't want to run him anymore." He did not condone the practice of horses running injured and did not imply that he would if it were an inferior horse. If you want to ring that bell call it Doug O'Neill. Also, there was no comparison of Wise Dan to John Henry. The comparison was made of Sam Rubin John Henry's owner who lost $133,000 in non refundable pre entry fees to run in the BC, paid before John Henry's injury was detected. Someone reminded Charlie LoPresti of that story to which he replied, "Oh, man I forgot about that, now I don't feel so bad." The story also mentioned that John Henry attempted a comeback, but he sustained another injury and was retired. Re-read the caption under picture at the beginning of the story. Jon Henry never raced in the Breeder's Cup and Wise Dan was running for his third straight win, the only comparison made is that both horses were unable to run due to injury. But, since you brought it up compare the past performances of both horses and let's not forget Wise Dan's come back after colic surgery, 2 races and 2 wins GR 1 & GR 2 stakes. In 1978-79 John Henry had a moderate at best record running mostly in claimers and allowances. In my opinion Wise Dan is every bit the horse that John Henry was, the difference being that Wise Dan earned his respect in 31 starts compared to John Henry's 83.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Dan is every bit, "not a horse", just like John :-) Nice post, Lee...John might be my fave of faves, (although Dan has earned mucho respect, too), but that just might be my "unbridled emotions talking" (that's for you, Coldfacts :)
Salvatore Agro More than 1 year ago
It's always the same story, said unashamedly: "it it were a cheap horse (then risk it)." Goes to the heart of what is inherently wrong with people and the psort
mike More than 1 year ago
mark More than 1 year ago
Ray sousa: give a little credit to this idea to a previous post! Like Mine.
mike More than 1 year ago
eye roll
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Good not God,
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Yo to be honest to compare Wise Dan to JOHN HENRY is really out there for me, Wise Dan is God but he is no JOHN HENRY PERIOD. Love the story but to compare Wise Dan to JOHN HENRY..... no freaking way
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
R U kidding me.........Wise Dan has a MUCH MUCH better career record than John Henry........Wise Dan is 15 of his last 17..how much better can he be..Wise Dan has won 2 straight BC miles......23 for 31 in his career....John Henry LOST44 of 83 starts.....at the very least they are equals
Gregory More than 1 year ago
WRONG! Take a look at the company John Henry kept on turf and dirt. The horses he beat could have beat Wise Dan. I like Dan but he's certainly not John Henry.
mike More than 1 year ago
Vince,you're on something if you actually believe that.
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
JOHN HENRY won on dirt, slop, mud and turf. Plus if they carded a race on the Jersey Turnpike he would have won that. That said it doesn't make Wise Dan anything less then what he is - a multiple champion.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
all the grand old champion geldings should be adopted by racetracks and become celebrity lead ponies. They would be an attraction for the racing fans ..who wouldn't like show up at say Saratoga or Santa Anita and see WISE DAN out there leading the young horses on to the track with a nice saddle cloth with his name on it."ladies and gentlemen thats WISE DAN one of the greatest turf milers ever leading the field in his new duties as lead pony" GAME ON DUDE and one day SHARED BELIEF could do the same.
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
People go to the track to gamble and the zoo to view animals
Gregory More than 1 year ago
Vince your a fool.
mike More than 1 year ago
Yes he is,a complete fool.
mike More than 1 year ago
Tell you what Vince,don't attempt to speak for everyone since your only agenda is cashing only. You have little regard for the racehorse in general. BTW good luck cashing your $2 ticket.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
That's why tracks stands are filled with people right..Its obvious the hard core go to gamble but in this day and age you can gamble without leaving the house.so racing needs to find ways to create new fans and to me the best way is to cultivate an admiration for the former greats and let people see and learn about them.
russell More than 1 year ago
...Spoken like a true gentleman.