Running Man

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Charlie LoPresti followed this one. The trainer walked next to Horse of the Year Wise Dan around the paddock, through the chute, all the way to the track. Handed off to the pony, Wise Dan jogged a few steps, the overwhelming favorite going out to defend his title in the $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap. LoPresti, satisfied, turned and walked toward the big screen in the clubhouse.

Asked for a television interview, LoPresti apologetically declined.

“I just want to watch my horse run.”

And, wow, did he run.

Wise Dan, toting 129 pounds including jockey John Velazquez, secured his eighth consecutive victory, running down pacesetter King Kreesa to win by 1 ¼ lengths. Bred and owned by Morton Fink, Wise Dan won for the 17th time in his 24-race career. Last year, he won the Fourstardave by 5 lengths over yielding turf while carrying 119 pounds (actually in receipt of a pound from Get Stormy), thus began his present win streak. This year, he carried another 10 pounds, over good turf and shaved 3 seconds off his time. They went the first half in :47.48 and the second half in :46.52.

LoPresti parked in the middle of the mosh pit assembled to watch the reigning Horse of the Year at the big screen along with Fink and his wife Elaine, nephew Chip McGaughey, exercise rider Damien Rock and his wife/exercise rider Erin and the rest of the Wise Dan team. Beyond the involved, owners, trainers, kids, gamblers, writers assembled to see the magic show.

Wise Dan broke deliberately from the rail as Skyring cleared him to the right and King Kreesa shot to the lead without effort. Bending into the first turn, Wise Dan secured a comfortable spot, fourth along the portable rail set 18 feet off the hedge. King Kreesa opened 2 lengths, Skyring stalked in second, Lea lapped to the outside of Wise Dan, still tucked in third, as the leading foursome opened 5 lengths on longshots Mr. Commons and Willyconker. King Kreesa loped through an easy first half as Velazquez kept Wise Dan in the pocket, making sure to keep tabs on the leader. Into the turn, Joel Rosario gunned Lea to the outside of Skyring and Wise Dan, stacking three abreast behind King Kreesa. For a moment, Velazquez tapped the brakes, more like he took his foot off the gas. Midway on the turn, Skyring back-pedaled, Lea flattened out and suddenly Hendrix had his guitar.

Wise Dan eased to King Kreesa’s quarter as Irad Ortiz urged the front-runner to finish what he started. The New York-bred accelerated and for a moment, oh just for a moment, the champion looked vulnerable. Brewing like an argument, Wise Dan lengthened as Velazquez pumped, shoulders and elbows steady without panic. Wise Dan gradually reeled in King Kreesa. At the eighth pole, Velazquez peeked under his right shoulder, signaling touchdown. His whip stayed down and the champ stayed high, powering across the line.

All the while, LoPresti stood like he was waiting for a light to turn green. Right about the time Velazquez snuck that look, LoPresti leapt in the air, tomahawk chopping his right arm, over and down, over and down. Then the trainer hugged Chip McGaughey, turned to make sure the Finks could find their way to the winner’s circle and then floated toward the track.

“I’ll tell you what, I didn’t know if he was going to get him there for a minute,” LoPresti said. “I was a little worried there. They went so slow the first quarter, that horse if he gets loose like that, he could be dangerous.”

“He never even picked up his stick, though,” Rock said. “When he looked back…”

“Yeah, I love that,” LoPresti said. “Johnny’s so confident.”

LoPresti added one more thought, “No more handicaps.”

Wise Dan shouldered his highest weight assignment while giving 12 pounds to King Kreesa, Lea and Mr. Commons.

LoPresti was more worried than Velazquez.

“I didn’t worry about that weight. I was going to ride my race and give him the best ride possible without losing too much ground,” Velazquez said. “Obviously I had a great post position being in number one and that was my number one thing. That much weight, I wanted to save as much ground as I could and try to give him a nice run down the lane.”

Wise Dan took care of the rest, winning for the 11th time in his last 12 starts, his only loss coming by a head in the Stephen Foster last summer. Since that loss, he won the Fourstardave, Woodbine Mile, Shadwell Mile and Breeders’ Cup Mile to finish off his Horse of the Year season last year. This year, he returned to win the Maker’s Mark 46 Mile at Keeneland. Three weeks later, he overcame yielding turf to win the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. At the end of June, he worked for an ugly win in the Firecracker at Churchill. This year’s Fourstardave made eight in a row.

“He’s special. It’s incredible. For him to come back, race after race, with that much weight, we have to take our hats off to him. It’s just special to be a part of the team,” Velazquez said. “Today was a much better trip. There was more speed than the Firecracker. The horse on the lead, I knew he was going to carry me. I was hoping he would carry me all the way to the eighth pole and actually he did. I pulled (Wise Dan) out at the three-sixteenths pole and the other horse had some gear going as well. But once I got him out and got him running I knew I had him. It was a really, really great effort by a great horse.”

Wise Dan has now strung together great efforts for two seasons, he’s won eight in a row, 11 of his last 12 and 13 of his last 15. In his career, he owns wins on the dirt, synthetic and turf at distances of 6 furlongs to 9 furlongs. He’s earned $4.464 million. Last year, he won the Fourstardave by 5 definitive lengths. This year, the margin wasn’t necessarily definitive, but the effort certainly was.

“He cruised up pretty good, but he didn’t get by him, like blew by him,” LoPresti said. “The weight and he’s had it tough, the race on Derby Day on that soft turf, then the Firecracker, he’s good right now, but as I tell Mr. Fink, he’s not made of iron, I don’t want to run him every time there’s a race for him.”

With four tough races already this year, LoPresti has already thought about skipping a race in the fall, to get to the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita fresh and ready to defend his crown.

After the winner’s circle presentation (the Finks did find it), LoPresti walked through the clubhouse, humbled and awed again by the best horse he’s ever trained.

A 6-year-old gelding by the unheralded stallion Wiseman’s Ferry, Wise Dan is a freak of nature, he breaks the rules. LoPresti, Rock, Velazquez, anybody who is around him can’t make sense out it.

“I don’t know where the parts are or how you put them together, but they’re just there. You saw that when they were warming up, his neck’s bowed, it’s just how he does things,” LoPresti said. “I don’t know how you bottle it up, I don’t know how many millions you would spend to try to find another one like him. He’s just engineered to run, that son of a gun.”