Wise Dan set for 6-year-old debut after monster season

Charlie LoPresti will send Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year, to the post in the Grade I 
Makers 46 Mile on Friday at Keeneland.
Trainer Charlie LoPresti will send Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year, to the post in the Grade I Makers 46 Mile on Friday at Keeneland. Herald-Leader

Some of the shifts have been obvious, some more understated in nature. But there was no way the lives of those associated with the copper-coated gelding known as Wise Dan were going to go unaltered following the evening of Jan. 19.

When you help bring along a horse who claims Eclipse Awards for champion turf male, champion older male and the end-all, be-all Horse of the Year crown — becoming the first to sweep that trio of hardware since the legendary John Henry in 1981 — certain aftershocks are a given, from increased media demands to a surge of personal validation for all those involved in the process.

Because there has thankfully been no injury to derail him thus far, it was inevitable the chorus of accolades directed at Wise Dan following his championship 2012 season would at some point be interspersed with ponderings of whether his talents at age 6 would be in any way changed from its previous devastating form.

In between navigating the new set of demands having the reigning Horse of the Year has brought to his world, trainer Charlie LoPresti has taken solace in the fact that the one entity that seems completely unaffected by the pressures is the horse who brought it all on.

"All indications are he's the same horse we put away," LoPresti said. "We've worked him and it's like gosh, how can a horse be off and come back and work like that?"

Wonderfully accommodating as LoPresti has been and continues to be, the Keeneland-based trainer will be happy to let Wise Dan speak for himself this week. Five months after his triumph in the Breeders' Cup Mile last November, the Wiseman's Ferry gelding is on track to make his 2013 debut at Keeneland on Friday in the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile on the turf.

It is a collective treat for the racing world anytime a reigning Horse of the Year returns for a follow-up campaign, and it is particularly appropriate that Wise Dan is slated to make his first start as a three-time Eclipse Award winner at his home base. It was in last season's Grade III Ben Ali Stakes during the Spring Meet where his freakish ability delivered its first shot across the bow for 2012 when he cantered to a 101/2-length win in that 11⁄8-mile test on the Polytrack, establishing a track record mark of 1:46.63 in his season debut.

What followed after that is now part of history: a narrow runner-up effort to Ron the Greek in the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill followed by four effortless wins on the turf, including three straight Grade I triumphs in the Woodbine Mile, Shadwell Turf Mile and course-record setting turn in the Breeders' Cup Mile. The horse who was 11/2 lengths behind Wise Dan in second on Breeders' Cup day? Only Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who recently became the first American-based horse since 2009 to capture the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

"I think yeah, it flatters (Wise Dan)," LoPresti said of Animal Kingdom's Dubai triumph. "A lot of people said we should have went, a lot of people said we should have run in the (Breeders' Cup) Classic. But we didn't and (owner/breeder) Morton Fink wants to have him around the U.S. to enjoy.

"There is a big target on his back, everyone wants to beat him. I mean, he's Horse of the Year," LoPresti continued. "I don't want him to get beat but as long as he runs good and comes back good, that's a good first race. And I think we've got him pretty good right now."

As is typical for most LoPresti runners, Wise Dan was given the winter off for a freshening and returned to the barn with about 100 more pounds on his frame than were there when he left the Breeders' Cup winner's circle. But the minute he and exercise rider Damien Rock started getting down to serious business, posting his first timed breeze in February, there was no easing into things on the gelding's end.

The same fluid motion that has been known to throw clockers off with its ease started showing up almost immediately with his last four works — including a 5-furlong breeze in 1:00 on April 4 — being bullet moves.

"When he first came back, he was getting a little muscle sore and stuff getting going," LoPresti said. "But he's a funny horse sometimes. You'll think he's not moving good but then you breeze him and it's like something breaks loose. Then next thing you're like 'Holy smokes.' He's just a phenomenal horse."

In the moments of calm when LoPresti can sit on his tractor or train his bird dogs, he still has potential scenarios for Wise Dan and Co. running through his mind this year.

Successful Dan, Wise Dan's multiple graded stakes-winning older half brother, is slated to make his return from injury in this year's Ben Ali — giving LoPresti another potential monster for the handicap division. And lest anyone forget, Wise Dan is also a Grade I winner on dirt, having taken the 2011 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, and there is certainly no fear of devaluing him for the sake of a stud deal.

"We may try and make him a dirt horse again. Or maybe we go to Arlington with him," LoPresti said. "It's just one race at a time."

As of last week, only three other probables were scheduled to line up against Wise Dan in the Maker's 46, one being defending race winner Data Link. While there may be no better time to tackle the champion than his first start off the bench, few want their horses to become examples of how the more things change around Wise Dan, the more he remains the constant.

"Yeah, you worry about when's it going to end," LoPresti said. "But it's pretty cool to be in this position anyway."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader