11/03/2013 8:34PM

Wise Dan emerges from Breeders' Cup as Horse of the Year front-runner

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Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan's body of work this season, capped by his victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile, will make it difficult to deny him a second Horse of the Year title.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Game On Dude was the pro-tem leader for Horse of the Year coming into the Breeders’ Cup last weekend at Santa Anita, with Princess of Sylmar considered one of the viable candidates should he fail in the Classic.

Both, though, were soundly defeated, Game On Dude faded to ninth in the Classic on Saturday, with Princess of Sylmar last of six in the Distaff on Friday, leaving ol’ reliable Wise Dan as the front-runner to repeat as Horse of the Year following his victory on Saturday in the Mile.

The Breeders’ Cup helped decide a number of Eclipse Awards, but many more remained unclear following the 14-race extravaganza, most notably 2-year-old male and 2-year-old filly.

Wise Dan overcame a stumble at the start and a wide trip to rally and win the Mile, earning his sixth win in seven starts this year, and his fourth Grade 1 victory. His lone loss came when the Shadwell Turf Mile was moved to Polytrack because of rain. He finished second.

The victory in the Mile completed a campaign that some perceived as being a repeat of what Wise Dan had done in 2012. It was much more.

After winning the Maker’s 46 Mile in April, Wise Dan in May stretched out to 1 1/8 miles to win the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs over a yielding turf course that forced the scratch of Point of Entry.

Owner Morton Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti also kept Wise Dan in the Firecracker at Churchill Downs in June, despite a deluge that left the course bottomless, and over which Wise Dan had to carry 128 pounds.

Wise Dan lugged 129 pounds in the Fourstardave at Saratoga in August, running down the razor-sharp King Kreesa while, as in the Firecracker, having to concede significant amounts of weight to his rivals.

Wise Dan then traveled to Toronto in September to easily win the Woodbine Mile. Then came the setback at Keeneland in October, followed by a repeat visit to Santa Anita for an encore performance in the Mile.

All told, Wise Dan ran at five different tracks, four in this country, one in Canada. He won at least one race at all those tracks.

That resume led LoPresti on Sunday to say he would “be very surprised” if Wise Dan did not repeat as Horse of the Year.

“We never backed down,” LoPresti said.

Wise Dan also is the most likely winner as champion male turf horse, a title he won last year, too.

Wise Dan last year also was the winner as champion older horse, but Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man are viable candidates this year with their traditional dirt campaigns. Though Game On Dude flopped on Saturday, he did win his five other starts, including a sweep of premier races for older horses at the three Southern California tracks, the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Mucho Macho Man lost his first three starts of the year, but finished with a flourish, taking the Awesome Again and the Classic.

 

When Princess of Sylmar was sent to the Breeders’ Cup, the potential reward was Horse of the Year. The risk, though, was the 3-year-old filly title, and it will be interesting to see how Eclipse Award voters, who get their ballots in December, will lean when comparing Princess of Sylmar with the brilliant winner of the Distaff, Beholder.

Both Beholder and Princess of Sylmar won four Grade 1 races this year. They split their two meetings, Princess of Sylmar prevailing in the Kentucky Oaks, in which Beholder was a close second, and then Beholder proving vastly superior in the Distaff. Beholder also won twice against older runners, including soundly defeating the same Royal Delta whom Princess of Sylmar outran in the Beldame.

Although Royal Delta lost the Distaff, she remains the most likely winner as champion older female, a title she won last year.

Groupie Doll also figures to retain her title as champion female sprinter following her popular repeat victory in the Filly and Mare Sprint, though a case could certainly be made for Mizdirection, who won the Turf Sprint for the second straight year and won 4 of 5 starts this year.

Mizdirection also would be an intriguing candidate for the female turf title, though Dank’s parlay of the Beverly D. and Filly and Mare Turf likely will carry that category.

If the late run of Will Take Charge had carried him past Mucho Macho Man at the end of the Classic, he would be a clear-cut favorite for champion 3-year-old male. He still could be the front-runner, but there are several other candidates, most notably the winners of the Triple Crown races, Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow, and Belmont winner Palace Malice. Both Will Take Charge and Palace Malice had year-long campaigns that ran from January through November, which should count for something.

Several other categories are even less in focus. The male sprint title often is decided in the Sprint, and the electrifying victory of Secret Circle over many of the division’s most-accomplished candidates could carry him all the way to the Eclipse Award, even with an abbreviated, two-race campaign. There should be significant sentiment for Points Offthebench, who won 4 of 5 starts this year, two in Grade 1 races, and likely would have been the favorite in the Sprint had he not suffered a fatal injury during what was to be his final work for the race.

The 2-year-old titles both could yet be decided. New Year’s Day won the Juvenile to leap into contention for the male 2-year-old championship, with Grade 1 winners Havana and Strong Mandate still viable options after brave performances from poor posts in the Juvenile. The uncertainty in this division means late-season races like the Remsen and CashCall Futurity could help sway voters.

Similarly, the Demoiselle and Hollywood Starlet may be needed to sort out the 2-year-old fillies, who had an unsatisfying BC race on Saturday with She’s a Tiger being disqualified in favor of Ria Antonia in a race in which Grade 1 winner Secret Compass perished.

Gary Stevens thrust himself squarely into the debate for champion jockey by taking the Distaff and the Classic, victories that came in the midst of a comeback year that also saw him win the Preakness. Mike Smith has had more Grade 1 success this year than Stevens, including the Belmont, and did win the Turf Sprint, Juvenile Turf, and Marathon last weekend to lead all riders at the Breeders’ Cup. The average earnings per start of Smith and Stevens dwarfs those higher up the yearly money-won tables, such as Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario.

Todd Pletcher is the runaway leader among trainers for purse earnings and graded stakes this year, but he was shut out at the Breeders’ Cup, most notably with Princess of Sylmar. Pletcher, though, has had a terrific year overall, highlighted by the Belmont with Palace Malice. But there should be strong support for LoPresti, who is the only trainer in the top 25 in purse earnings who averages more per start than Pletcher, and who has done a masterful job not only with Wise Dan, but with his fragile half-brother, Successful Dan.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey have dominated race meetings from Keeneland to Churchill Downs to Saratoga this year, and are considered the front-runners for both champion owner and, because of their superstar stallion Kitten’s Joy, champion breeder. But there is bound to be at least some sentiment for Fink, who bred and owns Wise Dan, who has again emerged, following Breeders’ Cup weekend, as the most likely winner as Horse of the Year.