Horse of the Year Wise Dan showing no signs of letting up heading into loaded Keeneland meet

Assistant trainer Donal McCabe and Keeneland outrider Gene Vosler observed an early-morning work ahead of Keene-land's Fall Meet.
Assistant trainer Donal McCabe and Keeneland outrider Gene Vosler observed an early-morning work ahead of Keene-land's Fall Meet. Herald-Leader

Charlie LoPresti had only a few free moments between taking sets of horses to the Keeneland track Thursday. But before he could get back to eyeballing his trainees, he wandered over to a patch of grass for another look at the chestnut gelding grazing beneath the smattering of rain that peppered the morning.

Logic would suggest to LoPresti that somewhere within that gelding's balanced frame lies a limit to what he can achieve.

Both his trainer and his rivals are darned if they can find it, though. So easily does Wise Dan turn away would-be challenges that it has become a test in itself to discover any shortcoming in his game.

"All indications are there is no bottom to that horse," LoPresti said. '"But you have to think at some point in time there will be a bottom if you go to the well too many times. That's what you don't want to do."

The reason Keeneland patrons get to witness the reigning Horse of the Year in Saturday's Grade I, $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile — the headline race of the track's opening Fall Stars weekend — is because Wise Dan again bounced out of a Grade I win with the demeanor of a horse who barely extended himself.

Critics may clamor for LoPresti and owner/breeder Morton Fink to throw the horse regarded as the world's best into the deepest possible waters. However, every step of the 6-year-old's nine-race winning streak dating to last August has been designed to keep fueling the freakishly efficient engine, not run it down to fumes.

Wise Dan's course-record setting title defense in the Grade I Woodbine Mile on Sept. 15 reinforced the notion that the Wiseman's Ferry gelding may be on his biggest form upswing. After Wise Dan hit the wire 31/2 lengths in front while barely getting out of a high gallop, his Hall of Fame jockey, John Velazquez, exhausted more energy trying to pull him up than he did surging by challengers in the stretch.

"He doesn't even act like he ran, that's the scary thing," LoPresti said. "Obviously I have to say he is a little better this year than he was last year by his race record. If he was tailing off at all, he wouldn't have gone to Woodbine and run the race he did.

"I don't wonder (how good he is). I've watched all these good horses train and ... I would not be one bit worried about running him anywhere."

Eleven challengers tried and failed to best Wise Dan in last year's Shadwell Turf Mile. While there are even fewer signs of upset as he preps for a return engagement in the Breeders' Cup Mile this November, nine are scheduled to face the 2-5 morning line choice Saturday.

That Keeneland officials could lure that many to take on the chestnut beast is one of many scores the track has made for its Fall Meet. The first three days are each loaded with full fields, including 13 juvenile fillies entered for Friday's Grade I, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades.

Quality has always been Keeneland's hallmark and with overnight purses averaging more than $600,000 per day and better stock already nearby thanks to Churchill Downs' first September meeting, several big outfits are going to be represented in force.

Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey have already won six meet titles this year, including a record-setting 25 victories during Keeneland's Spring Meet, while trainer Wayne Catalano is coming off his 11th meet title at Arlington Park.

"We did increase our purse money, for example maidens went from $50,000 to $56,000," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's vice president of racing. "... So we're doing our part to be competitive in North America, not only stakes races but in the day money as well."

Among those in Wise Dan's path will be his fellow Grade I-winning stablemate Turallure, though the 6-year-old gray horse hasn't won in nine starts since taking the 2011 Woodbine Mile.

"Turallure is doing really well, and if he finishes second or third he makes more money than running in an allowance race here," LoPresti said. "I didn't put him in there to beat Wise Dan but I had to give (owner Donna Arnold) a fair chance to run her horse, and there are probably 4-5 horses like him going in there."

After a slow start to 2013 that saw a number in his barn affected with illness, Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans is rounding back into form, having saddled Breeders' Cup Turf winner Little Mike to victory in last weekend's Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.

Front-running Silver Max has been the stalwart of the Romans barn this season, winning the Grade III Oceanport and Grade II Bernard Baruch in his last two outings. The 4-year-old will break just inside of Wise Dan in post No. 9 in the Shadwell, where Romans said the plan is to try and do what no other horse has pulled off in over a year.

"(Wise Dan) is going to have to catch us," Romans said. "So far, he's been able to catch about everybody he runs against, but hopefully Max will be the exception.

"I think you can consider (Wise Dan) a super-horse and I don't think there's been that many super-horses."

Fall Meet

When: Friday through Oct. 26 (No racing on Mondays and Tuesdays)

First post each day: 1:05 p.m.

Friday's graded entries, B6

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader