Charlie LoPresti stared at the legs of Wise Dan. Fans clapped. Connections smiled. Bettors headed to the windows. LoPresti continued to stare, like a like a kid who dropped his ice cream cone on a summer sidewalk.
After winning the Maker's 46 Mile April 12, the reigning Horse of the Year slowed to a walk and stopped, next to the trainer, in front of the Keeneland grandstand. LoPresti was excited, his big horse had returned with aplomb and panache, winning a Grade I stakes off a five-month layoff. Then jockey Jose Lezcano told LoPresti the chestnut gelding stumbled when pulling up. LoPresti looked down, saw a small cut on the left pastern, that was all, but still he stared and stared, oblivious to the commotion around him. When a trainer looks down, time stands still.
"Lezcano and the outrider told me he took a stumble step," LoPresti explained. "He had a little nick on his pastern, it's so minute, it was nothing...that's the trainer in me."
It was nothing then, nothing now. With a nick on his pastern and a check for $186,000, Wise Dan is officially back to defend his 2012 Horse of the Year title, winning by a length over Data Link. Bred and owned by Morton Fink, the 6-year-old son of Wiseman's Ferry has now won 14 of 21 races, including eight of his last nine.
Like he does every year, Lopresti stopped with Wise Dan at the end of last season - a season that netted five wins from six starts and three Eclipse Awards (Horse of the Year, turf male, older horse) - and turned him out on the trainer's 200-acre farm near Lexington.
"After the Breeders' Cup, we kept him at the track for about a week, jogged him, took him to the track, made sure he was in good shape and he was sound," LoPresti said. "Then we brought him home and put him a round pen for a while, just to get him unwound, then we turned him out in the indoor arena, let him run around, play, roll and be a horse. It didn't take but a week and he was turned out in a paddock eating grass. Shoot, I guess, he had two months off there, we'd turn him out during the day and bring him in at night."
In an era of year-round racing, LoPresti is a throwback. He likes to stop his horses in November and give them time off before bringing them back for a spring campaign. It's good for the horses and the trainer. For Wise Dan, the routine has worked perfectly over the years. Layoffs are great, but returns come with pressure, worry, wonder, stress.
"Exactly. It was all that," LoPresti said when asked about his mindset before the return. "I was nervous about it. I was wondering if he's going to be the same horse. I was wondering if I had him fit enough. People asked me who I feared the most, I said, 'Data Link is an improving horse but what I fear the most is the layoff,' because his numbers were so superior to any of the other horses. The biggest thing I feared was it was going to be a really hard race on him and I didn't want that kind of race first time out."
Unable to find cover among his four rivals, Wise Dan pulled hard throughout the mile stakes, breaking Lezcano's hold as he headed down the backside but deflected a challenge by Data Link turning for home and wound up winning by a comfortable length. It wasn't perfect, but it was close.
Immediately after the race, LoPresti didn't think the race took much out of him. After three days of walking the shedrow at Keeneland, he knew it didn't.
"The way he did it, the way it unfolded, I don't think it was terribly tough for him, I'm not trying to be a smart alec, but he did it pretty easily," LoPresti said. "I didn't have him 100 percent cranked up. I knew he was going to be (sharp), first time back, just like he was in the Ben Ali last year. He's getting a little better though, I thought going into the first turn he might really want to go to the lead, but he really didn't get strong until going down the backside, when he went to his right lead, but once he got into rhythm, he was pretty good. He had daylight down the backside, that's the thing about that horse, when he sees daylight, he's looking for somewhere to go."
Last year, Wise Dan returned in the Ben Ali, running off the screen to win by 10 ½ lengths. Lopresti eyed the same race this year but decided to aim Wise Dan at the Maker's Mark Mile and his half-brother Successful Dan at the Ben Ali. The latter, 7-for-11 in his career, hasn't run since finishing second in the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows in June. Successful Dan strained a suspensory ligament in his left front while training at Saratoga. He's been on the shelf since.
"Well, we've got Successful Dan, he had a final work (Monday), we're going to send him to the clinic to get checked out so we're thinking in the back of our minds, we have Successful Dan for the Ben Ali," LoPresti said. "Honestly, I would rather have run in the Ben Ali but I know Mr. Fink wanted to run Wise Dan in a Grade I right off the bat and I was fine with that. I think the Ben Ali might have been a little easier for him, but coming back and running in a Grade I and winning a Grade I right off the bench proves he's the horse everybody thought he was last year."
Last year, Wise Dan won the Ben Ali on Polytrack, finished second in the Stephen Foster (beaten a neck) on the dirt, then reeled off wins in the Fourstardave, Woodine Mile, Shadwell Mile and Breeders' Cup Mile on turf. LoPresti nominated him to the Woodford Reserve on Derby Day but will most likely copy the same pattern as last year.
"You know, I'm probably thinking, the Stephen Foster, that's what Mr. Fink and I have been talking about, let's try to take the same path we took last year, the only difference is I'd like to win that race," LoPresti said. "I'm going to wait and see what happens with Successful Dan this week. When I get Wise Dan back to the track, I'll know a lot more. I don't see running in that race unless he's just an absolute monster."