What does a Horse of the Year do for an encore?
If you’re a fit 6-year-old gelding with no future as a stallion, the simple idea is to do it again, even if some of the obstacles haven’t been so simple.
With that in mind, Wise Dan, trained by Charlie LoPresti for 83-year-old owner-breeder Morton Fink, branched back into turf racing in the Grade II Fourstardave at Saratoga Race Course last year, and hasn’t been off the turf since.
That means he gets a return engagement to that race today, giving fans a great chance to see a reigning Horse of the Year who hasn’t lost since the start he made before last year’s Fourstardave, a second in the Stephen Foster.
Times change, though, and Wise Dan will carry 129 pounds as the 3-5 morning-line favorite, 10 more than he carried last year, and at least 11 more than the other six in the field will carry.
If he had a target on him last year, it was much smaller than the one he and jockey John Velazquez bring into the Fourstardave and every subsequent race.
“I don’t have any pressure on me,” LoPresti said. “That horse has done all that I can ask him to do. I don’t want him to get beat, but there’s no pressure on me or that horse.
“Any time you put a horse in the gate, you risk getting him beat. The most important thing is that he runs good and comes back good. I don’t want him to get beat, I’m not going to lie to you, but I’m not going to be destroyed if he gets beat. I don’t see it happening, but racing is racing. You could get a bad trip. Anything could go wrong.”
Plenty went wrong in his previous start, a win through a driving rain in the Firecracker at Churchill Downs.
Still, Wise Dan, not averse to close quarters, shoved his way through a tiny gap between Seruni and the hedge and held off Lea by two lengths.
“It was as ugly as it could be,” LoPresti said. “My heart was in my throat, and Johnny was laughing when he came back. He said, ‘I was never worried. He’s one tough son of a gun, and he’s going to make a hole.’ It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, the hole doesn’t open up. It was scary, but we were glad.”
The Firecracker runner-up, Lea, will face Wise Dan again, breaking from the outside, with the speedy King Kreesa just to his inside.
Wise Dan has the No. 1 post.
He picked up a pound from his Firecracker win, and LoPresti said he didn’t hold the weight assignment against New York Racing Association director of racing P.J. Campo.
“I’m not happy about it, and I blame it on the Kentucky racing secretary,” LoPresti said. “He never should’ve put that weight on him, and that’s what made P.J. Campo’s job really hard here. I told him you’re setting a precedent. That horse never should’ve carried 128. I would’ve been fine with 126. My gripe was what it was going to do to this horse for the rest of the year.
“I can tell you, he’s done with handicaps for this year. And I’ll be very careful.”
Two horses, Curlin (2007-08) and Cigar (1995-96), have repeated as Horse of the Year in the last 18 seasons.
Fink has said he wants to keep Wise Dan on track for a return to the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita, and if he gets through that campaign undefeated, a horse would really have to do something remarkable to deny him another Horse of the Year.
The Fourstardave was shortened from a mile and a sixteenth to a mile, and got a purse hike to $500,000 last year to entice Wise Dan here.
Exercise rider Damien Rock said Wise Dan actually has widened his stride a little bit, so no matter what fate, race conditions and his rivals throw at him, he will continue to be formidable.
“When I saw him at Santa Anita, I said, ‘Yeah, he looks like just a regular horse, a nice horse,’ ” said trainer John Shirreffs, who trains Mr. Commons, 10-1 in the Fourstardave. “But, boy, when you see that son of a gun move, everything changes. He’s an amazing athlete.”
“Right now, Wise Dan is on the top of his game,” LoPresti said.
Still, no one is handing the race to him.
“It’s horse racing,” Al Stall Jr. reminded.
He trains Lea, the 5-1 second choice, and expects his horse to put himself in position to take another run at Wise Dan.
“Wise Dan definitely tucks into a pocket,” Stall said. “He always does. We’ll be putting pressure from the outside, and I’m sure they’ll go around there behind King Kreesa.
“Wise Dan always gets out because he’s always got so much horse underneath him. If we get a little jump on him and he gets delayed a little getting out or something, we might have a chance.”