09/07/2015 7:16PM

Torn tendon ends Wise Dan's brilliant career

Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan, a two-time Horse of the Year, earned $7.55 million.

All good things must come to an end, and so it was Monday for two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, whose connections retired him just a few days short of an intended comeback race in the Woodbine Mile.

Trainer Charlie LoPresti noticed swelling in Wise Dan’s lower leg while he was being bathed after training Monday morning, a scan was performed on the area, and Wise Dan was diagnosed with a torn tendon.

Lopresti and owner-breeder Mort Fink talked it over and decided enough was enough. Wise Dan is 8 now. Even if the injury healed properly, he couldn’t make it back to the races until sometime in his 9-year-old season, and it would have been well over a year since Wise Dan had raced.

“There’s no point trying to bring him back again,” LoPresti said. “I expect he’ll retire to our farm here in Kentucky. He’ll be turned out with his brother, Successful Dan.”

Wise Dan was gelded before he made his first start in February 2010.

Wise Dan last fall marched inexorably toward a third straight Breeders’ Cup Mile win, but after or during his second victory in the Shadwell Turf Mile in October at Keeneland, he was found to have a non-displaced fracture in his right foreleg. Fink and LoPresti considered retiring Wise Dan at that point but decided to return him to training this year, and Wise Dan, LoPresti said, had exercised with his usual verve and brilliance while preparing for the first start of his 8-year-old season.

That start would never come, but Wise Dan goes out having made plenty of memorable ones. He won 23 of 31 lifetime races for earnings of $7,552,920. Wise Dan won 19 graded stakes, 11 of which were Grade 1s, and won graded races on turf, dirt, and all-weather surfaces. His first graded stakes win came at six furlongs on Polytrack when he won the Phoenix Stakes in October 2010 at Keeneland, but just more than one year later, he won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, a nine-furlong dirt race at Churchill, by more than three lengths.

But turf miles would prove to be the niche carved deepest by Wise Dan, a kind chestnut horse who became a ferocious competitor when the gate sprang open. Half the battle with Wise Dan early in his career was getting him to slow down and relax, and once Wise Dan discovered his off switch and his best lick, he became, literally, unbeatable.

After finishing second by a head in the Stephen Foster Handicap in June 2012, Fink and LoPresti began running Wise Dan between eight and nine furlongs on turf and never stopped. After the Foster that year, Wise Dan won the Fourstardave on turf Saratoga, and he would never lose another grass race.

Woodbine, Santa Anita, Churchill, Saratoga, and his home course at Keeneland, from just off the pace and from well behind, with perfect trips and with dreadful ones, on courses yielding and lightning-fast, at level weights and giving a ton of weight, Wise Dan won the last 14 grass races of his career, including back-to-back editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2012 and 2013. He was named champion older male and Horse of the Year in both those seasons, and Wise Dan might have concluded his career on a 15-race winning streak had the 2013 Shadwell Turf Mile not been rained off the grass. On Polytrack, Wise Dan was handed his last defeat by Silver Max, finishing second.

All this from a homebred by the obscure $5,000 stallion Wiseman’s Ferry and out of a mare, Lisa Danielle, who was no great shakes on the track herself. Fink had owned horses for decades and done well in several stretches when Wise Dan came along, but by then, he was nearly out of the game. Fink said the only reason he held onto Lisa Danielle as a broodmare was that she was named after his granddaughter.

Fink turns 86 in December. He’s sharp as a tack mentally, but he is a frail man who has battled diabetes for years. Still, he traveled to Wise Dan’s races whenever he could, which was most of the time. “That’s the one aggravating thing, if there is one: I wish I was 10 years younger so I could follow him around more easily,” Fink once said.

With Wise Dan thoroughly dominant in his division, calls began coming during 2013 for Fink and LoPresti to take Wise Dan out of his comfort zone. Run him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, or try Wise Dan in a longer turf race, like the Arlington Million, the chorus intoned, but Fink, blessed out of the blue with the horse of a lifetime, and conservative by nature, never wavered. He saw no reason to put Wise Dan in a position where he might fail.

LoPresti stuck closer to the horse every day, and Fink thought he felt more emotional about proving wrong the Wise Dan skeptics. LoPresti at times might have tried to nudge Fink toward new paths, but the trainer first and foremost wanted to do right by his great horse.

“I just like the horse,” LoPresti said two summers ago. “I don’t want to do anything to devalue him. I don’t ever want to do anything to hurt him just to prove some point. I don’t want to try to do the ultimate just to go down in the record books.”

It doesn’t matter now what Wise Dan did or didn’t do – he’s going down in the record books.

Last spring, Wise Dan colicked and was rushed to surgery, the operation revealing no more than an intestine awkwardly twisted, to everyone’s relief. Then came the fracture last fall, but until Monday, the legion of Wise Dan fans thought they’d get one more ride with their hero. They didn’t, but the one Wise Dan took for five calendar years on the racetrack was a wild, unforgettable one.