Shortly after reaching the finish line in Sunday's Grade III Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland, jockey John Velazquez assessed the fistful of churning horseflesh underneath him and realized he had a problem on his hands.
At some point, Velazquez was going to have to get Morton Fink's homebred Wise Dan pointed toward the winner's circle celebration that takes place on the Keeneland turf course after every graded stakes contest.
In order to do that, however, the Eclipse Award-winning rider was going to have to find some way to get the chestnut gelding to realize his work for the day was over.
"I couldn't get him pulled up," Velazquez exclaimed. "He was just so strong."
To say there was no stopping Wise Dan in the $150,000 Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland could qualify as the gravest understatement of 2012 thus far. In his first start since taking the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last Nov. 25, Wise Dan make a mockery of the rest of the seven-horse field, winning the 11⁄8-mile race by 101/2 lengths in a track record time of 1:46.63.
Sixteen days after his older half brother Successful Dan made a triumphant return to the races at Keeneland off a 17-month layoff, Wise Dan let trainer Charlie Lopresti know both of his big boys were ready to make some noise in the handicap division this season.
The 5-year-old gelded son of Wiseman's Ferry dragged Velazquez to the front shortly after sitting three-wide through the opening quarter :24.23 and turned his jockey into a glorified passenger as the 4-to-5 favorite opened up by 7 lengths in the stretch.
"I tell you he was strong the whole way around," said Velazquez, who piloted Wise Dan for the first time when they took the Clark Handicap. "I was just worried about the first part of the race. I wanted to get him to settle the first part of the race and let him do whatever he want in the second half. He got to the three-quarter pole and then I couldn't hold him anymore."
Keeneland has been the site of many statements on Wise Dan's behalf. He earned his first graded stakes score in the 2010 Grade III Phoenix Stakes and captured last year's Grade II Fayette Stakes prior to his Clark Handicap coronation.
In the weeks leading up to his return, Wise Dan has been signaling the sharpness in his form, registering bullet moves in three of his last four works.
"As the winter progressed, he got stronger and stronger and I was just praying I could hold him until April," said Lopresti. "I always thought he was talented but ... after the Clark, he really showed me something. He runs over any surface. And I think next time he won't be as aggressive either."
Big Blue Kitten won the battle for second, finishing 23/4 lengths clear of Guys Reward in third.
A start in the Grade I Stephen Foster beneath the lights at Churchill Downs on June 16 is the likely next target for Wise Dan, although his versatility allows Lopresti the luxury of shifting game plans if need be.
Wise Dan also won the Grade II Firecracker Handicap over the Churchill Downs turf last July giving him graded stakes victories over all three surfaces.
"Don't ever take the grass away from him because he can still run on the grass," Lopresti said. "I think he's an awful good one. With a horse like this with this much talent as hard as he runs, you don't want to run him every three to four weeks."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.