LOUISVILLE — The very nature of his job all but mandates Charlie Lopresti be an eternal optimist. But as the off-the-board efforts piled up for Wise Dan earlier this season, the Kentucky-based trainer began to wonder if he or his graded stakes-winning charge were going off form.
"I was on the fence of thinking maybe he's not the same horse as he was last year, or maybe I'm doing the wrong thing," Lopresti said. "I tried this, I tried that."
In an attempt to halt Wise Dan's three-race losing skid, Lopresti figured he had nothing to lose in trying the 4-year-old gelding on turf for the first time in Monday's Grade II Firecracker Handicap on the closing day of Churchill Downs' Spring Meet.
Fittingly enough, Wise Dan, who went off at 14-1 odds, ended up validating the faith his connections had in him to begin with.
The Wise Dan who overtook Strike Impact in midstretch and drew off for a 23/4-length triumph in the $203,000 Firecracker Handicap confirmed to Lopresti and owner/breeder Morton Fink his talent hadn't dropped off, but merely needed the right showcase.
After reeling off four wins in six starts last year, including a victory in the Grade III, 6-furlong Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland last October, trips to the winner's circle were expected to be the norm for the chestnut son of Wiseman's Ferry in 2011.
Instead, Wise Dan struggled against top company as his early season losses included defeats in the Grade II Commonwealth Stakes and the Grade III, 11⁄16-mile Alysheba at Churchill.
In an effort to shake up the headstrong gelding, Lopresti worked Wise Dan a half mile on the Churchill turf this past Tuesday and was impressed enough to enter him against some established grass veterans in the 1-mile Firecracker. Considering the kick the 4-year-old gelding showed in the lane following a perfect stalking trip, the wide-open turf division might have another formidable contender.
"Mr. Fink and I were talking and decided since he was nominated (to the Firecracker) we would work him on the grass just to see what he would do," said Lopresti, who was undecided where Wise Dan would start next. "(Jockey) Jon (Court) said when he worked him he didn't even know what he was doing until he hit the turn but that he could have gone around again.
"Things have been tough on him. He's had to come back off long layoffs and run against good horses. I was a little disappointed in the Commonwealth and we kind of threw him to the wolves in the Alysheba for his first time around two turns, but he really didn't run a bad race."
The one thing Lopresti knew Wise Dan needed in order to deliver his best run was to not be on the lead, as he was in both the Alysheba where he ran eighth and a 7-furlong allowance race at Churchill on June 10 when he finished fourth.
Court, who was aboard Wise Dan for the first time, followed that plan to perfection, allowing the chestnut gelding to settle off Plutonium and Strike Impact in third as those two fought through fractions of :23.81 and :47.19.
The 7-year-old Strike Impact was still holding game up front as the 10-horse field straightened out in the lane but couldn't quite hold on for his first stakes win as Wise Dan rallied on the outside to shake clear of his rivals.
"I was on him when he worked on the turf and ... I really had confidence he would handle the grass," Court said. "He showed me that down the stretch when I was working him and he showed it again today."
Wise Dan hit the teletimer in 1:34.59 over a course rated firm with 2-to-1 favorite Baryshnikov running late to get second by a neck over Strike Impact.
"They just went awfully fast for him," said Robby Albarado, jockey of Strike Impact. "When I turned for home, I loved where I was sitting and he just exploded too."
Multiple Grade I winner General Quarters never fired and came home seventh.
The joy of having Wise Dan re-establish himself was two-fold for his connections. His graded stakes winning half brother Successful Dan — also trained by Lopresti and owned by Fink — crossed the wire first in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last November but was disqualified for interference in the stretch.
Unfortunately, Successful Dan will likely not race this year due to a suspensory injury — all the more reason Wise Dan's emergence was celebrated on Monday.
"I only have one mare (Lisa Danielle) and she's the dam of this one and Successful Dan," Fink beamed. "So this is one of the most exciting things that's happened to me."
Jockey Julien Leparoux secured his eighth Churchill Downs riding title with 53 victories. Leparoux had trailed Corey Lanerie by 11 wins at one point but went on a tremendous tear over the final two weeks to earn his fourth Spring Meet crown... Steve Asmussen held off late charges by Ken McPeek and Eddie Kenneally to win his 10th Churchill training title. Asmussen had 18 wins, one more than McPeek and Kenneally.... Richard and Karen Papiese's Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. was the leading owner with eight wins.