Wise Dan repeats as Horse of the Year

Jose Lezcano rode Wise Dan to victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile last November. Wise Dan won six of seven starts in 2013.
Jose Lezcano rode Wise Dan to victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile last November. Wise Dan won six of seven starts in 2013. ASSOCIATED PRESS

This is the time of year when trainer Charlie LoPresti's horses typically enjoy some down time, recharging from their on-track exploits of the previous months.

This has also been the point in the calendar for the past two seasons when LoPresti gets to let the efforts of one particular charge sink in.

Since the Eclipse Awards were established in 1971, only six horses had earned the Horse of the Year distinction more than once. Saturday night, that rarefied company welcomed a lucky seventh as LoPresti trainee Wise Dan claimed top honors for a second consecutive season when winners of the 43rd annual Eclipse Awards were announced at Gulfstream Park.

As was the case with his 2012 championship campaign, Wise Dan had just one second-place blemish on his record this past season. Morton Fink's burnished homebred gelding was triumphant in six of seven starts with four of those wins coming in Grade I company including his repeat victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile last November.

It was that Breeders' Cup win — combined with the failings of Game On Dude in the Classic that day — that ultimately cemented another multiple hardware grab for Wise Dan. The 7-year-old gelding, who was also named champion turf male and champion older male for the second straight season, became the first horse to win three Eclipse Awards in consecutive years when he earned 208 of the 249 first-place Horse of the Year votes cast from the NTRA, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.

Fellow Horse of the Year finalists Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge received 21 and 15 votes, respectively.

"I'm just elated to be around a horse that's even thought about in the same category as horses like John Henry, Forego," LoPresti said. "Guys go all their life to not have their hands on a horse like him. That's how lucky I am that this horse came into my hands. I hope I get another one, but the chances are slim and none. He's just a phenomenal horse."

It feels like a lifetime ago that LoPresti, looking for a way to break the chestnut gelding out of a then-three-race skid, took a flyer in trying Wise Dan on turf for the first time when he started him in the 2011 Grade II Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs.

"It was an accident really," LoPresti recalled of that first grass victory. "I tried to get him in an allowance race and it wouldn't go so we nominated him to the Firecracker."

Since that time, Wise Dan has lost only once on the turf — that being a fourth-place run behind champion Gio Ponti in the 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile. In 2013, he returned to the Firecracker to notch a 2-length win during a torrential rainstorm that had him bobbing and bouncing off the hedge while carrying 128 pounds.

Impressive as his wins in the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic were, it was Wise Dan's 31/2-length victory in course-record time in the Grade I Woodbine Mile last September that many tabbed as the single best performance by any North American horse of the past 12 months.

"I think his season this year was even a better season than last year because of the kind of turf courses he ran on and the amount of weight they put on him," LoPresti said. "I think he had to overcome more this year than last year and he still handled it."

Wise Dan's triumphs completed a night of few surprises at the Eclipse Awards ceremony.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who was honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit, celebrated conditioning his 25th Eclipse Award champion when multiple Grade I winner Will Take Charge was named champion 3-year-old male.

Royal Delta made history by earning her second straight Eclipse Award for champion older female and third championship overall, having been named champion 3-year-old filly in 2011.

Though both Beholder and Princess of Sylmar each had four Grade I wins in 2013, it was the former's triumph in the Breeders' Cup Distaff that allowed her to earn the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly by a healthy 207-42 margin.

Multiple Grade I winner Dank was the overwhelming choice for champion turf female, with Shared Belief and She's a Tiger being named champion 2-year-old male and 2-year-old filly, respectively.

What Wise Dan will tackle this year is to be determined as he is currently enjoying his relaxation spree at LoPresti's Lexington-based farm.

"I don't see any reason why he shouldn't come back to the same level," LoPresti said. "To be better? I don't know what else you can do to make him any better."

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