The defending Horse of the Year was quiet as he stepped from his stall Saturday morning at Saratoga. With a subdued air about him, he calmly snorted and stepped from straw to dirt. He allowed his hooves to be picked, shook his head with ears up, then nodded up and down a few times.
Wise Dan held steady as exercise rider Damien Rock climbed aboard. The two moved smoothly as one unit as they circled the wash pad to get things loose. Wise Dan’s forelock lifted on and off his head in rhythm to his steps. He became more alert the more times he went round, and accepted Rock’s pat to his neck as his cue.
“Loosening up good there, Rock?” trainer Charlie LoPresti asked as he walked closer.
“Yeah, loose as a goose,” Rock said.
LoPresti sat on an overturned tub next to his storage shed as he watched rider and horse work.
“Gonna have fun, boy?” he asked.
“Yeah, dragging me around the track,” Rock answered for his partner.
“Think positive, maybe he’ll listen to you,” said LoPresti.
“I’m positive he’s going to drag me around,” Rock replied with a laugh that perhaps covered a hint of apprehension.
Wise Dan deemed ready to go, man and horse began their trek from the backstretch to the Oklahoma training track. Assistant Reeve McGaughey moved to hook a shank to Wise Dan, but LoPresti waved him off, stating that he didn’t need it.
And he didn’t.
Wise Dan moved smoothly under Rock as his hooves clacked the pavement. The 6-year-old chestnut moved peacefully as he held his tail out and swished it back and forth.
“He’ll get loose by the time he gets there,” LoPresti said, as he watched the gelding’s movements while he kept pace beside.
Spittle dripped from the prize gelding’s mouth as he made his way across Union Avenue and into Oklahoma territory. He chomped at the bit, ready to go.
“He knows he’s going to breeze,” LoPresti said as Wise Dan’s movements became more excited. He danced to the side when McGaughey removed the shank he hooked when it came time to cross the road.
“Oh yeah,” Rock said as he reined in the champ.
Wise Dan carried his head high, ears alert, as scoped out the stables in Oklahoma.
A call-out came from someone in Todd Pletcher’s stable as Wise Dan moved past: “This the big one, Rock? The big one?”
Horse and rider moved onto the dirt with a jog around the turn, then switched to a walk as they entered the turf. Normally only open for workouts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the Oklahoma turf was open for Wise Dan. Being Horse of the Year comes with some fringe benefits.
Tail out, Wise Dan made his way out on the turf and stationed himself in front of the clockers’ stand. A good-sized crowd gathered and Rock and Wise Dan waited for trainer Chad Brown’s multiple graded stakes winner Dayatthespa to arrive.
Wise Dan didn’t stand long, and was soon off for his work. Motions fluid as he moved into a gallop, his length stretched out, and his tail streamed behind him.
The reigning Horse of the Year breezed alone on the turf, demonstrating to bystanders why he is in a class of his own. Rock gave no encouragement to hasten his steps, and Wise Dan took off like a rocket.
“He looked like a freak,” said Erin Rock, Damien’s wife who also works for LoPresti as an exercise rider.
After the breeze, an exhilarated Rock put it simply. “He just feels like a monster under you,” he said. A tongue-lolling Wise Dan kicked up dirt as they made their way back toward LoPresti’s barn. The horse’s coat darkened with sweat, and tail out, he walked again with head high, ears up.
“Pretty fast,” Rock said when he heard Wise Dan went 5 furlongs in :57:38. “He just doesn’t feel like he’s going that quick.”
After crossing Union Avenue, Wise Dan made his way down the pavement toward his barn. When a driver had to maneuver his car around them, McGaughey suggested Rock take Wise Dan to the designated horse path on the side.
“He’s Wise Dan, he can walk where he wants, all right?” Rock said, laughing and eventually moving him to the path.
“I always think he’s going slower than he is,” said Rock, who was told by LoPresti to go in :59. “He’s just a machine. I swear his stride’s gotten bigger. Just effortless, you know? His stride is so long-every time I think I have him figured, I don’t.”
Rock’s been around long enough that on just about any other normal horse he probably would have been spot on. But this is Wise Dan, and he’s far from normal.
His cadence quicker than it was on his way out, Wise Dan moved in silence on his return. And as the sun shone over his form, he met his first match for speed this year, as shadow of horse and rider kept pace with him on pavement.