Five weeks from live racing and the Keeneland Race Course grandstand is empty. Nothing's blowing around, there's no coffee being sold, deals being made, tourists checking out the scene. Horses are on the track though, groups of 2-year-olds and hard-knocking veterans alike. Not a huge amount, compared to what it will be like in a few weeks. Not surprising either.
It's cold. Very cold.
Snow flurries are in the air, just as they were the night before and the next two days in Central Kentucky.
The morning of the last day of February brings the kind of cold where you feel like your feet might shatter like glass when you hit the ground dismounting from your buckskin pony when the day's training is done.
Charlie Lopresti knows the feeling of Keeneland in late February better than most. He's here year-round, when it's beautiful and sunny, windy and rainy, hazy and humid, and of course cold.
Wise Dan, defending Horse of the Year and the star of the formidable Lopresti barn that sits in a row of six on Rice Road, knows the feeling, too, and is thriving with two solid months of early season training in him.
"He's doing really good right now. He had a little breeze last weekend and I'd say he's pretty dag-gone good," said Lopresti, thawing out in his office and feet intact after training Thursday. Wise Dan breezed a half mile Feb. 23 in :50, as easy as could be with regular exercise rider Damien Rock aboard. Wise Dan breezed again Saturday, going the same distance in :49.20.
Rock was aboard again Thursday for his usual mile jog and 1 ¼-mile gallop in the first set of the morning and before daybreak. From there Wise Dan got a little relaxation and recovery time on Lopresti's vibration plate at the end of the shedrow with Reeve McGaughey on the shank.
Other members of Team Lopresti went about their morning paces as Wise Dan cooled out. Turallure breezed a half in :49.60, his longest recorded work as he continues on the comeback trail. Wise Dan's half-brother, Successful Dan, another who missed a significant chunk of the season, looked good on the track in the last set of the morning. Dual allowance winner Villandry and stakes winner Luzziana Man are gearing up, too.
Lopresti says he can't complain, not that it's really in his nature to anyway.
"All my horses are doing good," he said. "I'm real happy with all of them. We've got some little hiccups here and there with them, like all horses, but I think right now all my big horses are right on target. I'm right where I want to be let's put it that way.
The efficiency moving through the stable puts a logical target on the Keeneland spring meeting, which opens Friday, April 5. It always does when things are going well for a stable loaded with horses that fit the conditions a meet like Keeneland puts in the book.
A week after opening day the $300,000 Maker's 46 Mile is run and Wise Dan could be the headliner. The Ben Ali Stakes later in the meet is a backup option. He'll have big expectations wherever he runs. Some might say he's got a lot to live up to.
Six the last 10 winners of the Horse of the Year title returned to the races the season after winning racing's top prize and five won their seasonal debuts. The winners were Azeri, Ghostzapper, Invasor, Curlin and Havre de Grace. The only one who didn't in that stretch was Rachel Alexandra.
It's a tough group to follow, but Wise Dan seems like the kind to get it done.
He's already silenced critics who thought the Europeans would be too much in the Breeders' Cup Mile or Woodbine Mile. A few other foolhardy folks thought this horse or that horse deserved Horse of the Year, champion older male, or champion turf male honors. He silenced them, too, when voting wasn't really that close in any of those three categories.
Wise Dan trains about as well as a racehorse can train, leaving Rock's forearms and biceps burning at times as he rips through workouts. He was impressive in a morning move a little after this time a year ago and blitzed the field in the Ben Ali Stakes, winning by an easy 10 1/2. Did the same thing at Saratoga last summer, working in times faster than some of the races are run, then cruising in the Fourstardave Handicap.
The workouts for Wise Dan and the other members of the stable come at intervals Lopresti feels fit the horse. Lopresti doesn't put them on a program, follow it to the letter, letting the horses get into a boring routine and accustomed to breezing, walking, jogging, galloping on certain days, racing on others.
It works for Lopresti and it's worked for others through the years. The other way certainly works, too, but it's just not his style.
"I don't keep a horse on a regular schedule," Lopresti said. "It drives reporters nuts because they can never figure out, 'Why didn't he tell anybody he's working? Why didn't he do this or that?' That's just kind of the way I do things.
"I don't think a horse should sit in his stall every Friday afternoon knowing he's going to breeze on Saturday. You talk about Mr. [Allen] Jerkens doing things his own way, you know, some of these guys mark their training chart and they do it every week. I don't want to do that. Especially with a horse like him, that breezes the way he does. You've got to be really careful. He's really fast. Like freaky fast."
Lopresti turned Wise Dan out at his Forest Lane Farm in southeastern Lexington a few days after the Breeders' Cup and the now 6-year-old gelding stayed there through the holidays, arriving back at the Rice Road barn Jan. 1. The turnout time did the copper-colored chestnut well, he gained a little weight, and let down after the 2012 season that saw him win six of seven and all the hardware at the Jan. 19 Eclipse Awards ceremony at Gulfstream Park.
"He likes it," Lopresti said of the down time at the farm he and his wife Amy use for many purposes that include breaking and training, layups, and team roping, one of the trainer's favorite activities. "He knows the drill. He's easy to let down. Once he's done he's done. He keeps himself pretty fit because he plays in the paddock, but he did gain some weight. I didn't weigh him or anything, but he filled out pretty good."
Turallure was almost Lopresti's first Breeders' Cup winner, losing the Mile in 2011 by a whisker to massive longshot Court Vision at Churchill Downs. He wasn't totally right in 2012 and spent 90 days at Forest Lane last year after bone bruising was diagnosed after he was fourth in Churchill's Firecracker Handicap against horses he should have beat.
Lopresti hopes to get Turallure in an allowance race on the Keeneland grass, to give the 5-year-old gray a confidence booster.
Lopresti isn't in need of one at the moment, with everything holding together as the cold knifes through cracks the barn's dropped awnings and flurries blow in and melt on the shedrow. Away from the wind, and cozy in a blanket, Turallure takes his turn on the vibration plate. Lopresti gives him a check, chats with his help, and gives an assessment of the barn's status.
"I'm not behind the 8-ball," he said. "They've had some published works that people don't even know they had. I try to keep them under the radar. Believe me, they're going to open this main track up. They're going to do some renovation next week and it will be ready to go the first part of March we can really start cranking on these horses. We can tighten the screws the next 30 days."
Just in time for spring, for warmer days, for Keeneland.
*PHOTO: Horse of the Year Wise Dan and Kelly Wheeler enjoyed their summer in Saratoga last year. (Tod Marks)