For all the pre-race angst that surrounded the decision by his connections to put Wise Dan in Saturday's Grade II Firecracker Handicap, the real anxiety set in for his connections as the reigning Horse of the Year found himself trapped on the hedge, bobbling over a rain-drenched Churchill Downs course.
Top horses make a habit of shrugging off things that pass for adversity for others. And with a heavy weight literally on his shoulders as well as in terms of expectations, the champion gelding used his guts and class to render all the above moot.
Carrying a highweight of 128 pounds, Wise Dan rallied up the hedge and fought past pacesetter Seruni in midstretch to notch a two-length triumph in the $168,450 Firecracker Handicap during a driving rain storm.
The decision by trainer Charlie LoPresti and owner/breeder Morton Fink to even put Wise Dan in the Firecracker drew some scrutiny, with many viewing the race as one beneath his three-time Eclipse Award-winning ability.
When Churchill Downs' director of racing Ben Huffman assigned the 6-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding his 128 pound impost, 11-14 pounds more than any of his four rivals, LoPresti was particularly dismayed more so by the spread of weight than the assignment itself.
The ability that has earned Wise Dan seven consecutive wins and six career Grade I triumphs came through during what was supposed to be a cakewalk. After being pinned on the hedge through an opening quarter in :24.66 and half in :49.06, jockey John Velazquez bulled Wise Dan through a slight inside hole in the lane and vigorously hand-rode him to the wire as his mount appeared to take some awkward steps and brush the hedge.
"It was really tough (on me) and I'm just glad he got it done," LoPresti said. "I had been worried about the weight. It wasn't so much the weight on him, but the spread. The first thing I said to Johnny is, 'Is he okay?' because it wasn't a pretty race.
"When he was pinned down on the hedge I thought, 'Just let him run through. You're not going to beat him anyway.' I just hope he comes back good."
Sent off as the overwhelming 1-to-5 favorite, Wise Dan covered the one-mile distance in 1:39.82 over a yielding turf. Lea got up for second with Seruni third.
The Firecracker held a special spot in Wise Dan's history well before he showed up for Saturday's less-than-pretty outing. Back in 2011 when he was just a Grade III winner trying to halt a three-race losing skid, LoPresti put Wise Dan in the Firecracker in what was then his first career start on turf.
His 23/4-length victory in that race two years ago served as the jumping off point to the grass monster he has become. Since suffering a head loss to Ron the Greek in the 2012 Grade I Stephen Foster on the Churchill main track, Wise Dan has won five Grade I contests on the turf, including his course-record setting triumph in the Breeders' Cup Mile last November.
Wise Dan won the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland in April and Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill in his first two outings this year and now has 16 career victories from 23 starts with $4,164,070 in earnings.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.