Churchill Downs renames Firecracker for champion Wise Dan

Winning trainer Charles Lopresti, right, gestured as he talked with jockey John Velazquez aboard Wise Dan after winning the Grade I, $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, in Louisville.
Winning trainer Charles Lopresti, right, gestured as he talked with jockey John Velazquez aboard Wise Dan after winning the Grade I, $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Friday, Nov. 25, 2011, in Louisville. Associated Press

Churchill Downs’ Grade II Firecracker has been renamed for two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, the track announced Tuesday.

The $200,000 Grade II Wise Dan Stakes will be part of Churchill Downs’ 2016 Spring Meet featuring six Grade I races — including the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks — and total stakes purses of $8.25 million. The Wise Dan, named for Morton Fink’s homebred champion and two-time Firecracker winner, will also have a new distance and placement on the schedule.

Formerly conducted over 1 mile, the Wise Dan will be a 1  1/16-mile event on the turf and will now be part of the “Downs After Dark” program on Saturday, June 18, headed by the Grade I, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap. The Wise Dan had previously been run during the closing weekend of the Spring Meet.

It was over the Churchill course in the 2011 edition of the Firecracker Handicap that Wise Dan provided the first glimpse of the turf talent that would dominate Thoroughbred racing the next three seasons. With his chestnut charge in the midst of a three-race losing skid, trainer Charlie LoPresti tried Wise Dan on turf for the first time in the Firecracker and marveled as the Wiseman’s Ferry gelding won handily by 2 ¾ lengths.

Wise Dan would go on to win 15 of 16 career starts on turf including 10 Grade I victories on that surface. His only career loss on grass came when he ran fourth behind champion Gio Ponti in the 2011 Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. That same year, Wise Dan would notch his first Grade I win when he captured the Clark Handicap on dirt at Churchill Downs, signaling his rise to racing’s forefront.

“It means so much to us to have that race named to honor Wise Dan,” LoPresti said. “He’s been a great horse, and we’ve had so much fun with him and we’re proud of him. I’ve often thought that someday somebody would name a race after him, and I’m glad that Churchill was the first to come up with it because he’s won so many races there and is such a big part of Churchill Downs.”

Wise Dan’s Churchill Downs success also included victories in the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in 2013 and 2014 and his, memorable, hedge-skimming win in the 2013 Firecracker.

Wise Dan was retired this past September due to a tendon tear. He compiled a record of 23 wins from 31 career starts, 11 total Grade I wins, and earnings of $7,552,920. In addition to being named Horse of the Year in 2012 and 2013, he also earned Eclipse Awards for champion turf male and champion older male in each of those seasons.

The 142nd renewals of the $2 million Kentucky Derby and $1 million Kentucky Oaks on the first weekend in May headline a roster of 26 stakes events — 23 of which are graded races — scheduled for Churchill Downs Race Track’s 2016 Spring Meet.

The racing program headlined by the Kentucky Derby on May 7 features seven graded stakes races — three of them Grade I events — with total stakes purses of $4.15 million, making it the most lucrative single-day Churchill Downs racing program in track history.

The May 6 program headed by the Kentucky Oaks, the nation’s top race for 3-year-old fillies, includes a pair of Grade I events among its six graded stakes and total stakes purses for the day of $2.2 million.

The 2016 Spring Meet stakes schedule includes seven racing days that will feature two or more stakes events and the meet’s total purses reflect an increase of $200,000 or 2.5 percent from the $8.05 million offered during the 2015 Spring Meet.

The 38-day Spring Meet begins with the historic track’s “Opening Night” under the “Downs After Dark” lights on Saturday, April 30, and the featured event of the night that launches Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks Week will be the second running of the $100,000 William Walker. The 6-furlong stakes race for 3-year-olds honors Walker, one of the pioneer African-American jockeys who dominated the Churchill Downs jockey colony in its early years. Spring Meet racing will conclude with “Closing Night” on Saturday, July 2, the last of the meet’s three “Downs After Dark” night racing programs.

The other Grade I events on the 2016 Derby Day stakes roster are the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and the $300,000 Humana Distaff, a 7-furlong race for fillies and mares age 4 and up. Other Derby Day stakes include the Grade II $500,000 Churchill Downs, a 7-furlong main track race for 4-year-olds and up; the Grade II, $300,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile for fillies and mares age 4 and up at 1 mile on turf; the Grade II, $300,000 American Turf, a Grade II race for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on turf; and the $250,000 Pat Day Mile, a Grade III event for 3-year-olds at a mile known until last year as the Derby Trial.

Joining the main event on the Kentucky Oaks Day roster of six stakes races are the Grade I, $300,000 La Troienne, a 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares age 4 and up; the Grade II, $400,000 Alysheba for 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles; the Grade II, $200,000 Eight Belles, a 7-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies; the Grade III, $150,000 Twin Spires Turf Sprint for 3-year-olds and up at 5 furlongs on turf; and the $150,000 Edgewood, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies on turf that will be run as a Grade III event for the first time.

Restored to the Kentucky Derby Week stakes schedule for the first time since 2010 is the $100,000 Kentucky Juvenile, a 5-furlong test for 2-year-olds that will be the racing highlight of Churchill Downs on Thursday, May 5.

With the addition of the Wise Dan, the Stephen Foster Handicap and “Downs After Dark” program on Saturday, June 18 will offer five graded stakes races with total purses of $1.1 million. The roster also includes the Grade II $200,000 Fleur De Lis Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile race for fillies and mares age 3 and up; the Grade III, $100,000 Matt Winn, a race for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on dirt; and the Grade III, $100,000 Regret, a race for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles on turf named in honor of the winner of the 1915 Kentucky Derby – the first of only three fillies to win the “Run for the Roses” during its 141-year history.

Along with the Spring Meet’s 26 stakes races, Churchill Downs will offer six $65,000-added overnight stakes races, four of which will be part of seven multi-stakes programs offering during the meet.