A shade more than 72 miles away from the scene of America’s great horse race is the home of America’s best racehorse.
Keeneland was pretty quiet a little after 5:30 Friday morning as the crew from trainer Charlie LoPresti’s went about their work the day before the Kentucky Derby and more importantly the day before reigning two-time Horse of the Year defended his title in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on said Derby undercard. It was plenty dark, too, the lights around the outer ridge of the soon-to-be torn up Polytrack main track the only source of light at that hour. The air felt like it should in the spring, cool and thankfully dry.
Wise Dan, fresh off a successful seasonal debut a few weeks earlier and two strong breezes since, was equally cool if not more so as he trekked up the hill from LoPresti’s barn on Rice Road, Damien Rock in the saddle. Wise Dan jogged about three quarters of the way the wrong way around the main track, then visited the gate with stablemate Match Up.
Wise Dan handled it all the way he always does, like the same professional with 20 career victories, more than $6.4 million in earnings, two Horse of the Year titles, four other divisional Eclipse Awards and back-to-back victories in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. After the gate schooling he and Rock broke off in the lightest of gallops around the far turn, just ahead of Match Up and exercise rider Catlyn Spivey. The two stayed about 20 yards apart, give or take, as Charlie and Amy LoPresti watched from the chute used for the spring 2-year-old races and where Keeneland starter Spec Alexander and his crew work.
“His feet don’t even leave the ground,” LoPresti said, watching through his binoculars . “You see how he goes? He knows he’s going to run now.”
“Catlyn don’t pass him,” Amy LoPresti said, half jokingly. “Take a hold.”
“Look at his ears.”
“Nobody can see him because you’ve got the binoculars.”
“Oh. He’ll be fine though, he knows he’s going to run.”
“Oh yes he does.”
Match Up and another non-LoPresti trainee who broke off on a breeze shortly after Wise Dan started his gallop eventually did catch up, but only after Rock gave his mount the cue that he’d done enough.
Things will be a bit more serious Saturday, when Wise Dan takes on a larger-than-expected nine opponents in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve. He won the race a year ago, winning decisively despite boggy conditions.
No such rain or conditions will come Saturday, with an afternoon forecast calling for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 70s in Louisville. Four of Wise Dan’s eight losses have come at Churchill, but never on the grass. He’s 3-for-3 there on the turf and he’s 4-5 for the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve.
Wise Dan prepped for the Woodford Reserve in the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile during the early part of the Keeneland spring meet. LoPresti used the same two races last year to get Wise Dan’s campaign going and they were two of his four Grade 1 victories and two of six graded stakes overall.
The first two races of Wise Dan’s campaign in 2014 match those of 2013.
That much is the same.
So what’s different with Morton Fink’s chestnut gelding by Wiseman’s Ferry?
LoPresti and Rock, the two men around him the most, probably can provide the best answers.
“I think he’s stronger, I think he’s fitter,” LoPresti said back at the barn Friday, waiting for one final set to train and for the come-backing gelding Successful Dan to go jog on the training track. “Wise Dan’s two works [since the Maker’s 46] were really, really good. I couldn’t ask him to be any better.
“He worked that 47 [a bullet move April 22], the track was really dead that day. And he still worked that good. He got a good blow out of that work. I’m glad we got a good work into him that day. Most horses were having trouble finishing and he finished strong.”
Rock told LoPresti Wise Dan was “super” in his last day of training before Saturday’s race and later added, “I’d say he feels like he’s doing better.”
Prodded for even a little more – reporters are never happy – Rock obliged.
“You want more? OK, I feel like last year his first race took a little more out of him. He was a little more tired coming out of his first race last year compared to t his year. He was a little quieter last year. He’s really awake and on it now. That’s all I got.”
And with that Rock was off for the next set, Wise Dan continued to cool out around the shedrow and LoPresti looked ahead. To Saturday, to training Wise Dan once Keeneland rips up the Polytrack in less than two weeks, to future starts down the road [Saratoga fans take note, the Fourstardave is on the radar] and beyond.
“Maybe I won’t run him as many times this year,” LoPresti said. “I would say I’ll start looking to Saratoga after this. They have to shut this track down in two weeks, so I’d probably back off of him a little bit.
“I told somebody this last night, they asked what my biggest concern was. My biggest concern with this horse is that we keep him good and we don’t get him hurt. … Believe me I’ll be disappointed if he gets beat, if he’s not the same horse by the end of the year that will bother me, but he’s given us more than we ever thought we’d get from any horse. The Eclipse Awards, yes, sure it would be nice to win again this year. I don’t know if we can do it. There’s a lot of criticism on us for the way we campaign him, but you know what, they said he didn’t beat a whole lot last year but look at what Lea came back and did this year. He’s undefeated on the dirt. I don’t know what happened to Lea, got some kind of virus … but maybe that horse was a little bit better than they gave him credit for. He broke a track record at Gulfstream in a Grade 1.”
Entries for Saturday’s Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.
Wise Dan’s career record.
Watch Wise Dan win the 2014 Maker’s 46 Mile.