10/03/2013 12:59PM

Jay Hovdey: Little consolation for Winning Prize


Somebody please take out an ad, fire off an old-fashioned blast fax, or send forth a mass e-mail. Tweet, for Pete’s sake. Do they still have billboards by the highway?

The Horse of the Year is running on Saturday.

This should be big news, especially since the Horse of the Year is running at gorgeous Keeneland, where every horse should go to have its official portrait done. Wise Dan meets nine in the Shadwell Turf Mile, which he won last year without ever getting a sniff of the inside rail. He will be heavily favored to win again this year because, well, he’s Wise Dan, and the way he’s handled the opposition this year in five races – from the bog of the Woodford Reserve to the driving rain of the Firecracker to the blissful sunshine of the Woodbine Mile – there’s absolutely no reason to think he won’t do it again.

This is precisely how Dave Heerensperger, the owner of the promising Argentine import Winning Prize, sees the race. He expressed as much the other day to his friend and fellow traveler among the Northwest’s leading racehorse owners, Herman Sarkowsky.

“I told him I was shipping a horse across the country to Keeneland to try and be competitive against Wise Dan, which might be suicidal,” Heerensperger said. “Herman just laughed.”

It does seem a thankless task. Wise Dan has not lost a race on the grass since the 2011 running of the Shadwell Turf Mile, when he finished fourth behind Gio Ponti, Get Stormy, and Sydney’s Candy. In fact, the only horse to have beaten Wise Dan in 13 starts since then on any kind of surface was Ron the Greek, in the 2012 Stephen Foster by a head – the same Ron the Greek who dismantled the Jockey Club Gold Cup last weekend in New York.

“I know, I know,” said Heerensperger, who didn’t need to hear all that again. “It’s a real stretch for us, and about the only disadvantage Wise Dan’s got is the 10-hole. I was a little surprised to see 10 go in there, but then, they’re running for a lot of money.”

No kidding. The Shadwell (as in Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum) Turf Mile is worth $750,000, with $450,000 of that going to the winner, plus paid entry and starting fees for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The alternative for Winning Prize would have been to run at home in Southern California on Saturday in the City of Hope Mile at Santa Anita, in which Obviously will be the heavy favorite. The City of Hope is worth $150,000.

Winning Prize earned the right to try the Shadwell with his dazzling U.S. debut at Del Mar on Aug. 22, when he beat the solid stakes horse Chips All In while Rafael Bejarano had him under absolute wraps. His time of 1:32.96 for the mile looked even better three days later, after Obviously, the best in the West, had to run hard to win the Del Mar Mile in 1:32.64.

“I was very, very impressed with the way he did it,” Heerensperger said of his horse. “Especially because he was coming up from another hemisphere and running for the first time in eight months. He had a right to get tired, but he did it so easily.”

Bejarano is staying in California on Saturday to ride Goldencents in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, which means Garrett Gomez will pick up the ride on Winning Prize.

“He can be a pretty nervous horse,” Heerensperger said. “I guess that’s the Storm Cat in him. He got a little lathered up in the paddock the day he ran, and then when they came out on the track he decided to head off on his own and galloped to the backstretch. You had to worry that he might have run his race, but it was just his way of warming up.”

Winning Prize is in the hands of Neil Drysdale, who has had more than his share of temperamental creatures during a Hall of Fame career. Through his South American connections, Drysdale put Heerensperger together with Jose Nelson, for whom Winning Prize had won five of his first eight starts in Argentina. Heerensperger bought in for half, with the stipulation Winning Prize would do his racing for the partners in North America before entering the breeding shed back in his native land.

David and Jill Heerensperger are familiar in Thoroughbred circles thanks to horses like Blue Grass Stakes winner Millennium Wind, the brilliant filly Indyanne, and the durable, Grade 1 turf horses Artiste Royal and Bourbon Bay. The runner that put them on the map, though, was Hawksley Hill, whose exploits as a middle-distance turf horse were the stuff of high drama.

In the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs, Hawksley Hill managed to run the best race of his life only to get in the way of Da Hoss and his miracle comeback. The following summer at Woodbine, the Heerenspergers watched Hawksley Hill defeat an international field in the Atto Mile and then be disqualified to fourth because his jockey, Pat Day, struck another horse in the face with his whip. Three months later, in a second try at the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Hawksley Hill finished fifth as the favorite at Gulfstream Park, beaten a neck, a head, a nose, and a half.

Pure Prize, the sire of Winning Prize, is a son of Storm Cat and champion Heavenly Prize. He is a dual hemisphere stallion who is in the Breeders’ Cup program for his North American services but not when he stands in Argentina, which means Winning Prize would face a hefty supplementary fee to be part of a race like the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Nov. 2. Heerensperger is looking forward to crossing that bridge.

“If he wins this race then we’ll worry about it,” the owner said. “He’s only four, soon to be five, but half a year younger because of where he was born. There’s a lot to look forward to with him.

“So far he’s been a dream come true,” Heerensperger added, “and that doesn’t happen in horse racing very much. But if you want to keep dreaming you go back and run against a horse like Wise Dan.”