LOUISVILLE — For the second straight year, Charlie Lopresti left Churchill Downs after the Grade I Clark Handicap absolutely secure in the knowledge he saddled the best horse in the race.
Unlike last year, the Lexington-based trainer came away with a victory Friday night.
One year after his older half brother Successful Dan was disqualified to third after crossing the wire first in the Clark, Wise Dan gained a measure of revenge and helped sooth his trainer's old wound when he ran down Mission Impazible in the stretch to win the marquee race of the Churchill Downs Fall Meet by a widening 33/4 lengths.
When Successful Dan's number was taken down in favor of Giant Oak last November because of interference in the stretch, the normally cool Lopresti — who trains both siblings — couldn't hide his disappointment over the stewards' call.
Shortly after Wise Dan advanced three-wide off the final turn en route to earning his first Grade I win in 14 career starts, Lopresti said the victory by the 4-year-old gelding meant a lot.
"I was so disappointed last year because I just didn't understand why they took (Successful Dan's) number down," Lopresti said "But I respected their decision, and I knew I had the best horse in that race ... and when I was going through the tunnel tonight I said, 'Surely they won't take this one down.' He's just a good one. He beat the best today."
Indeed, with several divisional honors still up for grabs, the Clark drew one of its best lineups in years as Grade I winner Flat Out and Belmont Stakes hero Ruler On Ice were part of the stalwart field of 13 horses.
Wise Dan, however, has rarely looked as good as he has in the past six months. Ever the dutiful younger brother, the gelded son of Wiseman's Ferry picked up the mantle when Successful Dan was sidelined for the year with a suspensory injury, winning the Grade II Firecracker Handicap in July at Churchill in his first start on the turf and taking the Grade II Fayette Stakes on the Polytrack at Keeneland — his first win at 11⁄8 miles.
Even though Wise Dan had no issue stretching out in the Fayette, Lopresti and jockey John Velazquez — who was aboard Morton Fink's homebred for the first time Friday — were concerned that he might not have the same kind of stamina over the Churchill dirt.
"My question was the (distance) on the dirt today," Lopresti said. "But I thought he was going to run one of his best races today, and I would have been disappointed if he didn't. I think what's going to enable him to get that distance is the fact we're able to rate him ... and today he was ratable."
Lopresti couldn't have asked for a better scenario as 21-1 shot Will's Wildcat set honest fractions of :23.80 and :48.24 on the lead with Mission Impazible a close-up second and Wise Dan in the outside path third.
When Mission Impazible overtook the tiring pacesetter around the far turn, Wise Dan moved with him and took dead aim on the eventual runner-up at the head of the lane.
"Right from the start I got him back and he settled pretty good," said Velazquez, who gained the mount on Wise Dan when regular rider Julien Leparoux committed to ride Never Retreat in the Grade I Matriarch at Hollywood Park on Friday. "He was strong in hand and when I got to the quarter pole, he took off and moved so smoothly."
Sent off at odds of 9-2, Wise Dan covered the distance in 1:48.95 over a fast track for his eight career win. Flat Out, the 2-to-1 favorite, got up for third — his fourth loss in as many starts over his home track.
"He just doesn't like this track, I guess we have to accept that," said Scooter Dickey, trainer of Flat Out. "He was just fighting it."
With Successful Dan set for a Spring 2012 return, Lopresti has the enviable prospect of trying to keep two promising handicap horses apart next year.
Since Wise Dan became a graded-stakes winner on all three surfaces, that issue might have gotten easier.
"I really think his action is the best on grass but he looked pretty good today," Lopresti said. "He's just a good horse. Just stay out of his way and try and take care of him."