Damien Rock sat in the saddle as Wise Dan walked from barn 26 on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch, across Union Avenue, through a maze of barns and out to the Oklahoma training track turf course.
“Rock, that the big horse?”
“There he is!”
Trainer Charlie LoPresti walked alongside, and as he passed Angel Cordero Jr. near Todd Pletcher’s barn, LoPresti jokingly said, “You wanna ride him?”
“I’d need a pony to pull him up . . . I’m gonna watch him, though,” Cordero said.
The reigning Horse of the Year took to the turf course for a workout on June 27 to little fanfare.
No adoring crowds, no security detail, just simple gestures of admiration from people who know a great horse when they see one.
Wise Dan will run in the Fourstardave on Saturday, carrying a hefty 129 pounds against six rivals and the weight of high expectations that come with this territory.
To say that his path to another Horse of the Year has been carefully massaged by owner/breeder Morton Fink would be a gross understatement, and it has drawn criticism from fans and observers who want to see a champion run route races on dirt, in Grade I’s, all the time, every time.
This one-mile turf stuff just isn’t satisfying to many, who would have preferred to see Wise Dan run in last weekend’s Whitney and pursue the Breeders’ Cup Classic instead of the Mile.
Not going to happen, the 83-year-old owner has said, so Wise Dan will stick to the route he took last year, by pointing toward the Woodbine Mile and Shadwell Turf Mile after the Fourstardave, a race he won last year by five lengths.
“Mr. Fink has got this in his mind that he wants to follow this pattern,” LoPresti said. “And at his age, he wants to enjoy it. I mean, there’s been a lot of criticism that we didn’t go to Dubai with him. But it’s not that we’re dodging anybody. Mr. Fink’s illness doesn’t allow him to travel, so he said to me, ‘Charlie, it’s not about the money. If he goes over there, I can’t watch him and enjoy it. Then we’re knocked out for six months after that, so I have no chance to watch him at Keeneland, Churchill, go to Saratoga, Woodbine, the Breeders’ Cup.’ That was why the decision was made.”
In the meantime, LoPresti has Wise Dan chiseled to a diamond edge.
He blasted five furlongs in 57.38 in that turf workout, galloping out in 1:09 and 1:22 and barely breaking a sweat.
Wise Dan banked over $2.6 million last year with just one loss in six starts, a second to Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster.
Remarkably, LoPresti and Rock say he’s even better this year.
“For me, clocking in my head, I feel like I’m going 59 on him, and you come back and hear the time,” Rock said. “Every time I go out on him on the grass, I feel like I know him more, I’m sure I’m closer to it, and his stride has gotten bigger this year. I got him on the grass so many times last year and feel like I’ve gotten to know him now. Then I go out there and he did it easy and was closer to 58, 59 . . . then you come back and hear that, and it’s just amazing.
“He came up here last year, and it took him awhile to get used to the dirt track, and he was a little stiff and sore. This year, he came up and he’s been flying over the track from day one. His stride has actually gotten a little longer. He just feels like a powerhouse underneath you.”
LoPresti is unflaggingly friendly and conducts himself without an ounce of pretense.
It’s not unusual to see him lugging a feed bag around the barn and portioning out meals for his horses, among them Wise Dan’s half brother, Successful Dan, who finished second to Cross Traffic in the Whitney.
The word “managed” can carry a negative connotation in racing, because it suggests that the connections for a horse are picking easy spots that the schedule provides and denies fans the opportunity to see intriguing matchups.
For his part, LoPresti wanted to run Wise Dan in the Whitney, but Fink pays the bills and has his reasons for the choices he makes for his horse.
“I don’t care anything about what they say, because most of the people who criticize us have never trained a horse. And if they have, they realize just how hard it is just to keep a horse on a winning streak,” LoPresti said. “I was in favor of running him in a Grade I dirt race this year, the Whitney, the Woodward, wherever. Mr. Fink was of the opinion that he wanted to do the same thing we did last year.
“I have to abide by what he says. He owns the horse. I have no problem with doing that. Maybe he might change his mind at the end of the year and say, ‘OK, let’s try him in the Classic.’ But the most opportune time to run him on the dirt would’ve been up here, where I’ve trained him on the dirt, I like the way he worked on it.”
LoPresti and Fink are savoring Wise Dan’s campaign because they know that something can go wrong at any time.
Successful Dan got his hind feet tangled and flopped over on his side while leading the post parade out of the paddock on Saturday.
Wise Dan had an eventful workout on the main track on July 20, taking a bad step near the finish when another work horse ran by.
“It was a bad combination of a bad part of the track, a little bit of slack in the rein and he took a bad step,” Rock said. “I went down. His nose hit the dirt. I was on his neck, my right foot was over on the left side. I was pretty much off. Most horses, I would’ve let go, because you get hurt more trying to stay on, sometimes. I got this flash in my head of him running around loose and ended up grabbing his neck and trying a little harder. When he jumped up, he kind of flung me back up into the saddle, and helped. A lot of horses would’ve run away from it, but he stayed in a straight line, which really helped. He did feel like he took care of me.”
Also, Wise Dan and jockey John Velazquez nearly wound up over the hedge in his last start, compliments of Seruni and Corey Lanerie, who crowded Wise Dan in the stretch to no avail.
“He got by, he came out unscathed, but everything went against him that day,” LoPresti said. “The rain, the weight, they tried to put him over the hedge . . .”
Because Wise Dan is a gelding, he’ll continue to race next year, as long as he’s healthy and happy.
Besides Horse of the Year, he swept the Eclipse Awards for older male and turf male last year.
It stands to reason he could pull that off again, even if some people aren’t in love with the race schedule Fink wants to maintain.
“How do you criticize a horse who’s done what he’s done?” LoPresti said.
“If we can keep him undefeated the rest of the year, I could care less about Eclipse Awards or anything like that. What he got last year was phenomenal enough. If they want to give it to him, fine. If they want to criticize what we did and not give it to him, that’s fine, too. It’s not like he’s a stallion going to the breeder’s shed. I just don’t pay much attention to it, because if you do, you start doing things with your horse to make everybody else happy instead of making your horse happy.”