From the start, everything looked to be going awry, so much so that it sent real angst rippling through the connections of the horse who has refused to yield to repeated perils.
The chestnut face of two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan was cocked sideways as the starting gate for the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile opened. As he recovered from breaking at the back of the eight-horse field to get into contention during the $1 million test, his former conqueror was running devoid of pressure on the front end.
With a quarter mile to go, the future Hall of Famer looked as though he would suffer his second loss in the eight-furlong test. But with the arrival of the finish line came business as usual: an awe-inspiring victory, complete with as emotional an outpouring as he has ever inspired.
The tears from the camp of the 11-time Grade I winner and reception from the Keeneland crowd of 25,070 spoke eloquently of Wise Dan's one-length triumph over Grand Arch in Saturday's Shadwell Turf Mile.
As much as the chestnut gelding's presence in the winner's circle was expected, the path there was peppered with pitfalls, from his bad break to last year's Turf Mile winner Silver Max winging it up front through a soft half-mile in 48.27 while Wise Dan raced between horses in sixth.
Superior athletes have a way of turning aside defeat. With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez delivering right-handed urging, Wise Dan kept his 7-year-old legs churning, edging up from seventh on the far outside, past Grand Arch to his inside and Sayaad on the rail for his 23rd career victory. It was his third Grade I win this year and second triumph since returning from emergency colic surgery on May 16.
"It was emotional in Saratoga (winning the Grade II Bernard Baruch on Aug. 30) but it was really emotional here," trainer Charlie LoPresti said. "He's just an incredible horse, I don't know what else to say.
"When I saw that 24 and change with Silver Max I said he's done, he's going to steal this race. But (Wise Dan) just started cruising up the backside. Johnny got him settled. I don't know how fast he ran the last quarter but he had to be flying. An incredible performance."
The joyous screams of Amy LoPresti, wife and assistant to Charlie LoPresti, and Leona Velazquez, wife of John Velazquez, as they hugged and scrambled their way down the tunnel post race were matched by the ovation that welcomed Wise Dan as he made his way back past the stands.
Perhaps the most telling part of Wise Dan's latest win was how hard Velazquez had to work to get him pulled up after hitting the wire in 1:35.62 over a course rated good.
"The stretch was the easy part," said John Velazquez, who won five races on the card, including a sweep of all three Grade I contests on the day. "Going that slow, I was a little concerned I was going to be clipping heels. I was saying. 'Buddy, be easy, easy, easy.' Once I pulled him out of there, he kicked his usual kick. When I pulled him out, he was there for me."
The racing public has come to expect nothing less from the gelded son of Wiseman Ferry, he of the back-to-back victories in the Breeders' Cup Mile and $7,552,920 in career earnings.
His only career loss in 16 starts on the turf came in the 2011 edition of the Shadwell Turf Mile; his only defeat in 2013 came when he was second behind Silver Max when the race was taken off the turf due to inclement weather. If his wins in the Shadwell and Bernard Baruch answered whether he could be his old self post surgery, the question LoPresti and Fink will now field is whether a third run in the Breeders' Cup Mile will be on tap or a swing at the $5 million Classic at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1.
"He's doing what he's been doing and we have no reason to change it," Fink said.
Added LoPresti, "I think he deserves come consideration to run in the Classic. It's up to Mr. Fink. But I would not be afraid to run him in either race."