08/01/2013 4:30PM

Wise Dan's owner won't bend to criticism of campaign

Tom Keyser
Wise Dan wins the Grade 1 Turf Classic at 1 1/8 miles in May, the only race in his last seven starts that was not a turf mile. He has not run on dirt since the Stephen Foster in June 2012.

When Mort Fink reads stories online about Wise Dan, the Horse of the Year he bred and owns, he does not shy from the comments sections, where public opinion can come coarse and unfiltered.

“I read the comments all the time,” Fink said. “It amuses me.”

Much of that commentary recently has hardened into anti-Wise Dan sentiment questioning the nature of his campaign. The line of criticism took shape last fall, when Wise Dan’s connections – Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti – passed the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in favor of the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile, and it gained force when, after two more powerful Grade 1 turf wins to start his 2013 season, Wise Dan raced June 29 in the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap, a turf mile at Churchill Downs. Such a race, critics opined, was beneath a Horse of the Year. Why not try a top-class dirt race? And if not dirt, why not a longer Grade 1 turf race? If Wise Dan is a great horse, he should take on great challenges.

Fink, 83, hears the contrary voices and grasps that there are other paths he might choose. For now – and probably forever – Fink ignores the skeptics and manages his horse his way.

“No one is going to sway what I think,” Fink said. “I laugh like crazy when I read they think we’re taking advantage by running in a Grade 2 race.”

Fink is not arrogant, but he is stubborn and deeply conservative. The cry for Wise Dan to grow into something greater than he already has become might reach a fever pitch, but there’s little chance it will reach Fink, a retired businessman who has owned horses for more than 40 years. Wise Dan is stabled at Saratoga, and in different hands, he could be racing this weekend in the Grade 1 Whitney on dirt. But Wise Dan, just like he did last summer, runs instead next Saturday in the Grade 2 Fourstardave, another one-mile turf stakes. Then it will be on to Canada for the Woodbine Mile, which Wise Dan won last year. Wise Dan might attempt to win a second straight Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, and Fink fully intends Wise Dan’s season to culminate again in the BC Mile at Santa Anita.

“I want to do exactly the same thing as last year,” Fink said. “I have no interest in the Classic. Why get off track with this horse? I’d say we had a decent year last year. I’ve never been that way, taking gambles. I’ve always been conservative in everything I’ve done, business and otherwise. I’ve never been as wealthy as I might have been because of that, but I’m fine.”

LoPresti is cut from similar cloth, but he is less calmly detached from the critical fray than Fink. LoPresti, 57, doesn’t participate in social media, either, and he may be less inclined to dive into comments sections than Fink, but he hears the rumbles of doubt and would like to quash them.

“Charlie wants to run him on dirt,” Fink said. “He wants to show everyone that this is a great horse, that all those comments are wrong. But he’s younger than I am. This horse already proved how good he is on Polytrack, on grass, on dirt – why would we want to change anything?”

LoPresti, reached at his Keeneland base just before shipping to Saratoga, did not deny that he has lobbied for at least one Wise Dan dirt start this year. He even went so far as to mention those three hot-button words: Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“It would change the whole complexion if he won on dirt: We could consider the Classic as well as the Mile,” LoPresti said. “I’m pretty well comfortable going the same route as last year, but what if he started training like a monster on dirt? But if we go in a Grade 1 on the dirt and win, we look really smart; if we go out there and get him beat, they say, ‘Why did they do that?’ ”

LoPresti said the decision to point for the Firecracker, not originally on Wise Dan’s 2013 schedule, was Fink’s. In his decades owning horses, too many times Fink has picked up the phone to hear news of a training injury. Fink grew so concerned about putting Wise Dan through regular workouts between the May 4 Turf Classic and whatever race was chosen at Saratoga that he insisted on an interim Firecracker start.

“It was never my choice to do that, but Mr. Fink was worried about him being on the shelf for a long time,” LoPresti said. “I told him I didn’t think it would matter. I understood his concerns, but I did tell him going in, this is a subpar race for a horse like this. What if something went wrong in that race?”

Something nearly did go wrong. It rained buckets the night of June 29 at Churchill. Fink, settled into his den in his Chicago-area home, left the decision whether to run on a sodden turf course to LoPresti, who had permission from Churchill stewards, Fink said, to scratch in the paddock if necessary. Wise Dan slipped, slid, and bobbled his way to a two-length win, running through a driving rainstorm and in mid-stretch nearly being put over the inside hedge by an aggressive rival rider.

“My heart was in my throat that night of the Firecracker,” LoPresti said. “When [jockey] John [Velazquez] was bringing him back, I asked him, ‘Does he feel OK? Is he all right?’ Johnny laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about it – he’s fine.’ But let’s face it, I don’t have a bundle of horses like him. I want to protect this horse.”

Critics clamoring for Wise Dan to expand his repertoire might be missing the wide arc already cut by the 6-year-old gelding’s career. Wise Dan made his debut in late winter of his 3-year-old season in 2010 and looked like a sprinter that year. His first five starts came at six or 6 1/2 furlongs, the last race in that sequence producing a close sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Wise Dan won two of those sprints, including the Grade 3 Phoenix Stakes, and he has won graded races on turf, Polytrack, and dirt, and from distances between six and nine furlongs. He is a Grade 1 winner over 1 1/8 miles on dirt and, going the same distance, produced the highest Beyer Speed Figure of the synthetic surface era, 117, when he won the Ben Ali at Keeneland in his 2012 debut.

Though turf miles have emerged the last two seasons as his forte, Wise Dan has strayed far from the land of the one-trick pony, but as a horse’s fame accrues, so does public scrutiny.

“It’s part and parcel of having a very good horse,” said Teddy Grimthorpe, the racing manager for Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms. “Because they become popular, everyone then has an opinion about what they should be doing.”

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Juddmonte bred and owns Frankel, the undefeated English superstar who was trained by the late Henry Cecil and retired undefeated after his 4-year-old campaign in 2012. Frankel is considered by many to be among the best European horses ever, but a segment of the racing public and media steadfastly pushed for Frankel to step outside his comfort zone, the same one as Wise Dan: turf miles. When Frankel ran in mile races through the summer of his 3-year-old season, many felt he should have run in the Epsom Derby. When he successfully stretched his speed to 1 1/4 miles last summer, winning a pair of Group 1s, the critical chorus wanted to know why Frankel’s career finale didn’t come in the Prix de l’Arc d’Triomphe. And if the horse was so great, why did he never leave England?

“I think with Frankel, we were very conscious, Prince Khalid especially, that we had to do the right thing by the horse,” Grimthorpe said. “We ran him where and when we wanted to run him rather than where it would have been more expedient and popular. I think everyone wants great horses to dance every dance, but they are horses. You can’t just slap a new set of tires on him. But it is always a difficult one to satisfy the needs of the racing public, who do, at the end of the day, pay our wages.”

Frankel, a colt, had a post-racing stallion career to be considered. No such endpoint exists for Wise Dan, who was gelded at age 2 before he ever started, a young horse without any real pedigree power either from his sire, Wiseman’s Ferry, or dam, the Wolf Power mare Lisa Danielle. Wise Dan was a runner from the start, but he did not hit his peak until last year, at age 5, and no one who has watched Wise Dan race this year would see any sign of decline. The riches of a stallion career don’t await, but Wise Dan already has banked $4.1 million, $2.6 million of that last year. Wise Dan is large and fast, but he is a kind horse in temperament, and LoPresti has him figured out. With careful management, why couldn’t his run last two, even three more years?

“I think that’s the biggest thing everybody has to think about: How long can this keep going?” LoPresti said. “I don’t think there’s any deterioration in him, and if I had to guess from what I’ve seen this year, he’s probably on an upward spiral. We want to keep him around and enjoy him.”

Fink, too, has thought about preserving Wise Dan for future seasons by hewing to the cautious approach. “I just hope I’ll be there to see it,” he said. “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.”

Three months until the Breeders’ Cup provides plenty of time to probe Wise Dan’s ongoing campaign, and the chorus calling for Wise Dan to do more will grow if Fink sticks to his guns. Fink seems unlikely to budge, and Lopresti will in the end put at the center of all arguments the wonderfully talented gelding who has lived down his shed row for four years now.

“I just like the horse,” LoPresti said. “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.”