If the chestnut gelding with the slip of a blaze was the same horse who has dominated North American racing the last two seasons, trainer Charlie LoPresti knew his nerves and those of his crew in the Keeneland paddock would ultimately be put at ease.
If the reigning two-time Horse of the Year reacted in Friday's Grade I Maker's 46 Mile the same as always when competition came to his flank, owner and breeder Morton Fink figured he was in for another day of being, in his own words, the most spoiled person in the Thoroughbred business.
In what was his 28th career start at the beginning of this, his fifth season of racing, Wise Dan proved that he still is who his connections, his fans, and even his critics thought he was.
For the second straight year, the six-time Eclipse Award winner defended his title in the $300,000 Maker's 46 Mile, besting runner-up Kaigun by three-quarters of a length.
The sight of Wise Dan triumphantly kicking off his season at Keeneland is becoming a rite of spring in the Bluegrass.
Not since the great Forego in 1976 has Thoroughbred racing been treated to a two-time defending Horse of the Year winner returning for yet another campaign. Thanks to the artful handling by LoPresti and his staff, the now 7-year-old Wise Dan emerged from his winter break following a second straight win in the Breeders' Cup Mile last November again looking like a beast.
Similar to last year's Maker's 46 victory, LoPresti said he only had the Wiseman's Ferry gelding at about three-quarter strength coming into his seasonal debut. Such details hardly mattered once jockey John Velazquez opened up the reins to let him overtake Grade I-winner Lochte with a four-wide move off the final turn and needed only a few right-handed taps to register the gelding's 20th win and ninth career Grade I triumph.
"That is exactly the kind of race I wanted to see because I know I probably had him 75 percent," LoPresti said. "But his last two works told me that if he's the horse he was, he'll win on heart and class. When Lochte came to him ... Johnny still hadn't moved on him. I said, 'I know he'll get him home from here.'
"I kid around sometimes that you can pull him out of the field, and he can beat most horses. He's just an incredible horse."
Getting Wise Dan to relax in his first outing since November was the biggest challenge Velazquez faced Friday.
After breaking from post three, 2-to-5 favorite Wise Dan tucked in just off the hedge behind Za Approval, Alakazan Alakazan, and Gentleman's Kitten, who were prompting each other three abreast on the front end. Wise Dan engaged Lochte when that one advanced inside of him from fifth to take a short lead midway off the turn.
"I wanted to make sure I got him back and got him to relax," Velazquez said. "When he came to the quarter pole he was cruising, and I was thinking they're going to have to really run to get him. But he did it easily, and I'm very proud of him."
Having sat off fractions of :23.97 and :47.12, Wise Dan covered the distance in 1:34.91 over a course rated firm. Mark Casse-trainee Kaigun, who was trying Grade I company for the first time, was 41/4 lengths clear of Lochte in third.
LoPresti said a start in the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Handicap at Churchill Downs on May 3 is likely next for Wise Dan, but he also left the door open for a possible return to dirt in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap in June.
"I'm the most spoiled person in the business because I expect him to do that (win)," Morton Fink said while walking arm in arm with his wife Elaine for another post-race celebration. "I have never seen a horse as good as this horse. He's even better for my health because I have something to look forward to. It's a hard time for me when he's not running. When he's running it's the best time.
"You look forward to it. He never, ever disappoints, and you feel great."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.