06/27/2013 3:45PM

Jay Hovdey: Wise Dan, Obviously give turf mile fans a double shot

Email
Tom Keyser
Wise Dan's stiffest opponent on Saturday will be the 128 pounds he has been assigned to carry in the Firecracker.

It is a good day in American racing when the game’s two best milers, Wise Dan and Obviously, both leave the shelter of the shed row to strut their stuff in public. It’s just too bad they’ll be doing it 1,800 miles apart.

Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year, is acting like he wants to keep the job. After wins in the Maker’s 46 Mile and the Woodford Reserve – pour me a double! – he’ll go postward Saturday night at Churchill Downs in the $150,000 Firecracker Handicap.

Obviously was third to Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile last October, but it was the kind of third that looked better with each passing day. Animal Kingdom was second. Wise Dan ran the fastest mile in the history of the Santa Anita turf course. It was hard to ask any of them for more.

On Saturday, five hours before Wise Dan takes the field in Louisville, Obviously goes forth in the $300,000 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park. Obviously also has run twice this year for trainer Mike Mitchell and his crew, and he has run well, knocking off the rust when second in a turf sprint and then winning the American Handicap in a waltz.

Certainly, it would be great to see these two consummate pros tangle on a regular basis, but the rhythms of the sport these days do nothing to encourage such mid-season showdowns. There are plenty of places to run, or hide, before nut-cutting time come Breeders’ Cup.

In the meantime, count the blessings of their separate paths and celebrate the quality of these two geldings, 5 and 6, still being on the scene. Comparing their appearances on Saturday, it can be said that while Obviously faces the more accomplished field, Wise Dan must deal with a greater challenge. In either case, it will take about 93 seconds to find out.

Anyone taking the short price on Obviously will be seeking comfort in the numbers, which includes his lifetime high 107 Beyer over the same route and ground in the American. That’s fine, as long as it accounts for the fact that Neil Drysdale now has a race under the French classic winner Lucayan, that Jeranimo beat Suggestive Boy and Little Mike in the Shoemaker last year, and that Red Bank and Appleton winner Za Approval probably is not shipping to California because Christophe Clement favors a creperie in the Del Amo Mall.

Wise Dan, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to pick any of his opposition out of a crowd. Lea at least won a stakes last fall over the Churchill turf. But Corporate Jungle, who is a likely non-starter Saturday, has tried Wise Dan twice in the past and come to grief, and Daddy Nose Best is a long way from his comfort zones at Sunland Park and Golden Gate.

Instead, the champ’s stiffest opponent on Saturday will be the 128 pounds he has been assigned to carry by racing secretary Ben Huffman, representing a spread of 11 to 15 pounds more than the others.

Let’s hear it for Ben Huffman.

It’s a rare racing secretary these days who will step up and give a marquee horse a weight assignment that honors the best traditions of the handicap race. Then again, it’s hard to remember what those best traditions ever were.

The concept of assigning weights in the theoretical pursuit of a wall-to-wall dead-heat smacked of self-serving hubris from the first moment I heard it uttered, back around the days of Kelso, Mongo, Gun Bow, and Bald Eagle. Legendary racing secretaries like Walter Vosburgh and John Blanks Campbell were good, but not that good.

It made a little more sense that handicaps were a business tool designed to encourage gamblers that by betting a light weight they might have a better shot at nailing the favorite. Most of the time the joke was on the gamblers, but at least a weight spread gave them another black and white variable on which to base their plays.

If anything, the classic application of handicaps at the upper reaches of the sport provided another method by which excellence could be measured. Face it, there are only so many ways in which a horse can prove he or she is better than the rest. The good ones can be faster, more consistent, last longer and be more versatile, while the great ones will combine several of these traits. Add the ability to concede serious amounts of weight and now you truly were seeking to identify the very best of the breed.

Sadly, the system was abused. Racing secretaries began to take personally the growing reputations of certain horses who were winning in spite of high weights, and their assignments became clearly punitive. Their scandalous treatment of Alfred Vanderbilt’s Discovery in the mid-1930’s was an embarrassment, climaxed by his fifth-place finish in a field of five in the 1936 Merchant’s and Citizens Handicap at Saratoga. Discovery carried 143 pounds, the winner 100.

By then Discovery already had proven to be one of the best of his generation. He took his show on the road to win handicaps in Ohio, Illinois, and California, earning a popularity inspired not only by his commanding victories, but also by the nobility of his defeats in the face of high weights.

Like most modern American Thoroughbreds, Wise Dan is related to Discovery through his daughters Miss Disco, the dam of Bold Ruler, and Geisha, the dam of Native Dancer. Dan also gets a little dribble of blood from Discovery’s lesser-known daughter Traffic Court, who raced 63 times and produced Preakness winner Hasty Road.

Owner Mort Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti deserve a thank-you note for accepting the Firecracker challenge. And even though much of Wise Dan’s 128 pounds on Saturday night will answer to the name of John Velazquez – never a bad thing – the dead weight matters, both as a way in which to encourage lesser horses to take a swing at the big guy, and a chance for the rest of us to sit back and decide exactly where Wise Dan will fit someday in racing’s lore. Because, no matter what, there will always be lore.