07/03/2013 3:09PM

Jay Hovdey: Wise Dan joins great ones who win against all odds

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Wise Dan overcomes poor footing and an eventful trip to win the Firecracker Handicap.

Now that all the overnight ratings are in regarding Wise Dan’s performance in last weekend’s Firecracker Handicap – ranging from "big deal look who he beat" to "how dare they run him under such conditions" – it is time to turn the case over to the judgment of history and let the verdict settle to its natural level.

No less an authority as Charlie LoPresti, Wise Dan’s trainer, said, "It wasn’t a very pretty race," and he should know. Together they have painted some masterpieces, led by last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita and the Woodbine Mile in Canada. But LoPresti is the guy who puts his hands on Wise Dan’s legs every morning and worries late into the night about what comes next. He is not the guy who gets to sign off on posterity, however, because the Firecracker was an old-school work of art.

Winning ugly is backing into fat purse via disqualification. Winning ugly is staggering home first after a 14-second final furlong. Winning ugly is having the horse on your hip go wrong in the last hundred yards.

Any old champion can win when the stars are aligned. Secretariat in the Belmont, Damascus in the Travers, Landaluce in the Hollywood Lassie – nice work if you can get it.

But show me a champ who’s cut by a lace in the first round, or handed the stove and told to run up a hill and still, in spite of all the reasons to cave, comes through in the end.

In fairness, LoPresti merely was expressing his everlasting admiration in the immediate aftermath of what Wise Dan went through carrying 128 pounds, giving away 11 to 13, in a downpour over ground that would have brought Patton’s Third Army to its knees.

In addition, Wise Dan had the privilege of being ridden in the Firecracker not only by John Velazquez, but to one degree or another by Corey Lanerie, Jon Court, Rosie Napravnik, and Brian Hernandez, all of whom did their best to keep the reigning Horse of the Year handcuffed and surrounded, like a perp heading for the slam.

"When you’re on the favorite you’re fair game for everybody," said Angel Cordero Jr., who books mounts for fellow Hall of Famer Velazquez. "They’re going to try and make it hard for you. That’s part of the sport. But you know that going in, so you’ve got to be smart enough to know where to go and when to go."

Cordero did not exactly write the book on the subject, but he did conduct a career-long master class of riding that fine line.

"As long as you don’t bump the favorite, or do anything illegal, you do what you can to get him beat," Cordero said. "A good horse will overcome all that."

Wise Dan’s Firecracker was reminiscent of some very special races in which a superior horse faced conditions that provided every excuse for losing.

On Sept. 11, 1968, Dr. Fager ran on the grass for the first and only time in the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City. It was the 21st race of his 22-race career. He carried 134 pounds, conceding 22 pounds to Advocator (a son of grass champ Round Table, who won the 1959 U.N. Handicap under 136) and 16 pounds to both the Australian star Tobin Bronze and Fort Marcy, a future Hall of Famer.

The course was firm but the long grass was damp and slick from rain the night before as Dr. Fager pulled Braulio Baeza immediately to the lead. The big colt fishtailed around the tight first turn and fought the footing all the way around. Through the final quarter Advocator and Laffit Pincay headed and passed them more than once, while Baeza tried to hold Dr. Fager’s compromised stride together. In the end, Dr. Fager was simply too much horse. The winning margin was a neck. Nerud’s reaction?

"He must have run as good as he ever ran in his life," the trainer said.

On the night of Oct. 2, 1976, Bill Shoemaker was enjoying life in a Manhattan watering hole when the TV above the bar showing the day’s sports action caught his attention.

"Watch this," he said to a companion. "Tell me I didn’t lose this race."

There on the screen, the final quarter-mile of the 1 1/4-mile Marlboro Cup was unfolding in a river of Belmont Park slop. The 3-year-old Honest Pleasure was on the lead and loving it – the same Honest Pleasure who had won the Champagne by seven over the same kind of surface and set a Saratoga record in the 1 1/4-mile Travers. Somewhere out back and to the outside, the reigning two-time Horse of the Year Forego – all 1,200 pounds of him – was skidding and slipping around, with Shoemaker trying to keep the big horse balanced.

Then it happened. Forego caught his stride, and in the final sixteenth of a mile he appeared to be skipping over the top of the slop. Shoemaker steered straight and caught Honest Pleasure in literally the final stride of the 10 furlongs to win by a head. Forego carried 137 pounds, Honest Pleasure 119.

"It was the greatest race I’ve ever been in or seen," Shoemaker said.

No one disagreed, although Shoemaker did have second thoughts five years later after winning the inaugural running of the Arlington Million with John Henry.

The Arlington Park turf was deep – Firecracker deep – on that muggy afternoon of Aug. 30, 1981, when the first seven-figure American Thoroughbred race was run. John Henry was the reigning grass champion, but he’d never tried grass like this before, and his gliding, daisy-cutting stride seemed ripe for grief over the dead, holding ground.

From the bell, it was apparent John Henry was off his rhythm, just as it was clear The Bart, with his high-kneed action and thoroughly European pedigree, was loving it. Shoemaker did what Shoemaker did best, which was let his horse try to find a comfort zone. At first, John Henry was frustrated. Then the pro took over and he adjusted his stride. John Henry was still deep in the pack when they turned for home, and with a furlong to run his task still seemed hopeless.

But just as Forego caught fire with the wire in sight, John Henry clawed away at The Bart’s advantage. At the finish, The Bart’s nose was up and John Henry’s was down. Both of them slept well that night.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the weight Wise Dan carried and conceded to rivals in the Firecracker. He carried 128 pounds, not 127, and conceded 11 to 13 pounds, not 11 to 15.