08/08/2013 3:29PM

Jay Hovdey: LoPresti on a wild ride with Wise Dan, Successful Dan

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Trainer Charlie LoPresti has been patient with the media during Wise Dan’s 2013 campaign.

Even in these jaded, media-saturated times, the appearance of a reigning Horse of the Year is a big deal. Or at least it should be.

There are fans both old enough and young enough to remember that day in May 1977 when New York’s pari-mutuel clerks were on strike and the races were run anyway, since the OTB shops were happy to take the action. More than 7,000 fans showed up at the track to watch – just watch! – reigning Horse of the Year Forego make his season debut in an allowance race.

Wagering will be both offered and encouraged Saturday at Saratoga when Wise Dan takes the field once again in the Fourstardave Handicap over a mile on grass. On paper, his task does not appear particularly daunting, unless the skies open like they did when he ran in the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs six weeks ago. By the end of the evening, they were lining up animals in pairs, but Wise Dan prevailed.

There is a temptation to worry over Wise Dan’s 129-pound package in the Fourstardave, a weight last carried in a major U.S. handicap by Zenyatta in the 2010 Vanity. But since about 114 of those 129 pounds belong to John Velazquez, and Velazquez rides Wise Dan with a breezy confidence not seen since Bill Shoemaker scaled Swaps, the opposition might need to look elsewhere for a ray of hope.

“This horse is so fit right now, and his work the other day was so phenomenal, that I just try to keep him kicking over,” said Charlie LoPresti, Wise Dan’s trainer, when reached at Saratoga on Thursday. “I don’t train him very hard. He puts a lot into whatever he does. I just try and keep him happy, and now I’ve got him where I want him.”

LoPresti and owner Mort Fink get plenty of help deciding when and where Wise Dan should run. After all, this is the age of rampant fantasy leagues, and why should horse racing be excluded? There was considerable clamor for Wise Dan to run in last weekend’s Whitney, or next week’s Arlington Million, or the Woodward on Aug. 31.

“I think the biggest thing for me is to keep my horse in good shape and try to keep him in races where I think it makes sense,” LoPresti said, making a noble effort to sound as if he had not answered the question a dozen times or more. “And this race Saturday makes sense.

“He did work good on the dirt up here, and if Mr. Fink wanted to run him on the dirt here, I would have trained him a little differently,” LoPresti added. “I never would have taken him to the turf to breeze him, and I could have prepared him for the Whitney. But he was going to have to run against his brother, and that didn’t make any sense either.”

Yeah, about that brother, Successful Dan, who literally got up off the mat to finish a gallant second to Cross Traffic in the Whitney after tossing Julien Leparoux and falling on the pathway from the Saratoga saddling paddock to the track. LoPresti, 55, must have aged a decade.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t even see it until the next day,” LoPresti said. “I had just walked away from him. My nephew and a groom took him to a pony, and I was going through the grandstand. I heard the crowd roar, and then Sean Clancy hollered at me, ‘I think that was your horse.’

“When I came out, they were legging Julien back up, but through the crowd, I couldn’t really see. When I got to a TV, I saw all the dirt on his side and thought, ‘Oh, my god, what could have happened?’ My nephew came and found me and said when they went to hand him off, they don’t know what spooked him, but he ran backward. I finally saw what happened the next day, and after I saw it, I never wanted to see it again.”

As a student of natural horsemanship and a disciple of such noted practitioners as Buck Brannaman and Ted Carr, LoPresti understands that horses are capable of just about any behavior at any time. That does not, however, exempt a trainer from trying to understand why they did it.

“It could have been a number of things,” LoPresti said. “I’ve got to think there were some red and white awnings in through there maybe flapping in the breeze. Or maybe somebody in the crowd might have waved something. There’s so many people going through that little, tight area in there.”

It was what happened next, after Leparoux was ejected to the left, that took the incident to another level.

“When he ran backward, I think the girth might have pinched him, and then he kind of crossed his legs and fell over,” LoPresti said. “The thing that puzzles me was when he went up in the air, he was shaking his head side to side, but the boy didn’t even have a hold of him. Normally, a horse doesn’t run backwards like that when he’s got the tack on. And he hadn’t had a chance to jog or stretch out. I don’t know, and I’ll probably never know. I know one thing, though: I’m going to be watching him a lot closer next time I bring him over there.”

Successful Dan ran his race and apparently was none the worse for wear.

“He came out of that completely unscathed, except for one little scratch on the back of his hock,” LoPresti said. “Soundness-wise, he’s come out of it 100 percent, and he’s training very aggressively off of that race.”

So, the bullet was dodged, and it’s on to the next battle. LoPresti was asked if he’d have Successful Dan on his mind when Wise Dan makes the same walk to the track Saturday.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” LoPresti said, purging the negative thought. “I just had him over there and schooled him a few minutes ago. He’s such a cool horse. Now it’s up to him and Johnny Velazquez ... and racing luck. I can’t do any more than I’ve done, and I wouldn’t do anything different.”