When trainer Charlie Lopresti entered Wise Dan in Monday's Grade II, $175,000 Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs, he did so hoping to provide the chestnut gelding with a needed change in scenery.
The 4-year-old graded-stakes winner will be racing over a turf surface for the first time, but if Wise Dan manages to succeed, it won't be because he had an easy time of things in the entry box.
A deep field of 11 are slated to be in the gate for the 1-mile Firecracker — the headline race on the final day of Churchill Downs' Spring Meet — including multiple Grade I winner General Quarters.
Wise Dan looked ready to take the next step in his development last season when he won four of six starts, including a victory in the Grade III, 6-furlong Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland last October, and was beaten by just 21/2 lengths while running sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
So far, however, 2011 has been harder than expected for Morton Fink's homebred. After finishing fourth in the Grade II Commonwealth Stakes during his 4-year-old debut in April, Wise Dan ran eighth in an ultracompetitive Grade III Alysheba Stakes over the main track at Churchill on May 6 and was fourth in a 7-furlong stakes-level allowance race under the Twin Spires on June 10.
By putting him in the Firecracker, Lopresti isn't exactly easing Wise Dan into life on the grass. But the gelding worked a half-mile in an impressive :48.80 over the Churchill turf on Tuesday and convinced his connections he was up for the challenge.
"This is a tough spot to try a horse first time on grass, but ... he's won on a muddy track, won on the Polytrack and won on a good dirt surface, so we wondered how he would be on the grass," Lopresti said. "We thought it would be neat to take a look and see how he handled it, and he handled it really well.
"I just want to get him somewhere back on track. I'm thinking with this mile race on the grass, there might be a lot of speed in front of him, and he can come with one big run, and we might have a really nice turf horse for the future."
Disappointing as Wise Dan's end results have been this year, Loprestri has found some reasons behind his three-race losing skid.
In the Alysheba, which featured race winner First Dude and Grade I winners Giant Oak and Awesome Gem, Wise Dan found himself on the lead instead of in his usual stalking position.
"He's never been on the lead like that and won a race," Lopresti said. "And they had some of the better handicap horses in the country in there, so I wasn't disappointed in that race at all."
Though Wise Dan finished off the board again in his subsequent allowance test — a race in which General Quarters ran second — Lopresti said getting out of the sprint ranks will ultimately suit his charge best.
"I don't think he's a true sprinter, and people go 'Why do you say that after last year,' " Lopresti said. "If (the Phoenix) had been an allowance race, he probably would have run a mile next time out but, because it was a (Breeders' Cup prep), we were kind of thrown to the wolves and almost like we had to go. But my ultimate goal was always to stretch this horse out."
Wise Dan won a 1-mile allowance race on the main track at Churchill last November. Some of his Firecracker challengers, though, have already proved that they can do their best running over the Churchill turf.
General Quarters, who is owned and trained by Tom McCarthy, captured the Grade I Turf Classic Stakes at Churchill last May.
Considering he was the only horse McCarthy had in his care until recently, General Quarters has been one of the feel-good stories in racing since taking the 2009 Grade I Blue Grass Stakes. The Firecracker will feature another trainer bidding for career-making glory, Pat Dupuy, co-owner of veteran runner Strike Impact.
The 7-year-old Strike Impact is the lone horse in the barn of the 53-year-old Dupuy, the husband of Louisville Courier-Journal turf writer Jennie Rees. Strike Impact has never beaten stakes company, but the gelding has won three of his last four starts on the Churchill turf. They included back-to-back allowance scores on May 5 and May 30, when he defeated graded stakes winner Dubious Miss and 2009 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Furthest Land.
"He's had five weeks off, he's training well, and he's never looked better than he does right now," said Dupuy.