By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – As trainer Charles Lopresti awaited what proved to be a momentous night in his life, when Wise Dan was named Horse of the Year at the culmination of the 42nd annual Eclipse Awards dinner, he thought back to a time when he was not feeling on top of the world.
He remembered the uneasiness he experienced in the days leading to the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) when Hurricane Sandy forced shipping plans to change. Wise Dan did not arrive at Santa Anita Park until Thursday, two days from the race that would define him. Lopresti sent his prized gelding to the turf course on Friday to allow him to stretch his legs and acclimate to his new surroundings while allowing him to gauge his readiness.
Once he did that, his anxieties eased.
“He was very strong. He just glided,” Lopresti recalled. “Everybody watching him gallop said the same thing: ‘He looks like a monster.’ ”
And he produced a monstrous effort the next day, closing his 5-for-6 tour de force of a season the way he started it - by setting a course record. He previously established a mark on the synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland Race Course under John Velazquez as he ruled the 1 1/8-mile Ben Ali by 10 ½ lengths on April 22.
“It’s been a dream-come-true year to have a horse do what he’s done,” Lopresti said. “I don’t know how you could top it with anything you do in racing.”
His rousing 1 ½-length triumph against 2011 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Animal Kingdom in the Mile surely help voters to separate him from the two other Horse of the Year finalists, Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) victor Fort Larned and I’ll Have Another, whose Triple Crown bid ended when he was retired with a career-ending injury on the eve of the Belmont Stakes (G1).
It was about more than winning that day. It was about the high-caliber competition he dusted.
“I don’t know how you could get a better field than that,” Lopresti said. “The only horse missing was Frankel among highly regarded turf horses, and he beat them all fair and square. Nobody had any excuse.”
WISE DAN WINNING BREEDERS' CUP MILE
The only blemish on Wise Dan’s record this year came when Ron the Greek bested him by a head in the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) on June 16 at Churchill Downs in his lone dirt start this season. The defeat was ultimately forgiven, though, because he endured such a rough trip that afternoon and because Fort Larned faded to eighth.
Almost two months later, Wise Dan would rebound by taking the first of his four consecutive starts on turf, roaring off to capture the Fourstardave Handicap (G2) by five widening lengths at Saratoga Race Course. For Lopresti and owner-breeder Morton Fink, that was the day their hopes for the 5-year-old son of Wiseman’s Ferry soared.
“We always liked him. We always thought he was a really nice horse,” Lopresti said. “When he won the Fourstardave, we really started thinking how good this horse was becoming and what a future he had for the rest of the year.”
Hopes are equally high for the new season, when Lopresti envisions a similar campaign concerning the number of races and the events themselves. Wise Dan resumed training on Monday at Keeneland after a well-deserved respite.
“He looks as good as when I put him away,” said Lopresti of his newly crowned Horse of the Year.