Cup of Coffee: Art Work

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Charlie LoPresti let out a sigh. “I’m glad that’s over.”

The trainer walked toward the gap on the Oklahoma training track, to greet Wise Dan who had just ripped around the Oklahoma turf course. Late on a tranquil morning, alone, a red blur, hovering above the ground, the 2012 Horse of the Year scorched through his drill, posting an official time of 57.38 seconds for 5 furlongs. Exercise rider Damien Rock sat still as darkness, high up in his irons, letting nature take its course. Trainers, agents, clockers, writers, fans stood in awe, silenced by the solitude of one horse in a moment of freedom. When I’m asked what’s the best work I’ve ever seen, I’ll think back to the second Saturday at Saratoga, 2013. Turf. Wise Dan. It’s as good as I’ve ever seen.

LoPresti was awed again. Actually, not again, still. He lives in awe of Wise Dan.

“I don’t think he needs to work anymore. What do you think?” the trainer asked as he walked. “You see him, he’s not hard on the bridle. I don’t have a watch on him, I just watch him, I don’t care about time, I like to see how he’s going across there. I was just saying, “Just sit there Damien.’ He’s a different animal.”

Watching Wise Dan puts perspective on all the other horses. I buy some, own some, care for some. They’re horses, some of them are stakes winners. None of them are Wise Dan. He floats when he moves, all action going forward, a mechanical marvel, like he’s pulled by a magnet. That’s physical. Mentally, he’s completely at ease with his talent, like it’s just another day, doing what God asked him to do.

Rock, stirrups adjusted down, guided him off the dirt track, relaxed, rubber figure-eight noseband unwound and dangling under his chin. You could see he did something, but if you didn’t just see the exercise, hear the time, you wouldn’t have noticed anything. Just a horse heading home. God couldn’t find a crease down his back.

Rock, already clued in to the time, looked at LoPresti, like a scorned child, looking for approval.

“What did you think?” LoPresti asked.

“He’s unbelievable,” Rock said. 

“Know how fast you went?” LoPresti asked.

“Yeah, they told me. It felt like he was going in 59.” Rock said.

“Did he get tired?” LoPresti asked, knowing the answer.

“Tired?” Rock asked. “No.”

With two weeks to go before the Fourstardave and a long, satisfied look at Wise Dan, LoPresti was content.

“Look at him, look at how he walks home. I’ve never been around anything like it. What’s scary, he keeps going that way,” LoPresti said, sliding his hand upward like he was conducting a concert.

Wise Dan has won seven in a row, dating back to the Fourstardave last summer. The 6-year-old gelding is 16-for-23 in his career and judging by his Saturday breeze, he’s thriving. The Morton Fink homebred worked the same way last year. Some say he galloped out stronger a year ago. Hard to believe.

With a select string of quality owners and horses, including probable Whitney starter Successful Dan (half-brother to Wise Dan), LoPresti recognizes that this is his moment. The chances of getting another Wise Dan? Unlikely. LoPresti anguishes over splitting his stable to take a small string to Saratoga. His wife, Amy, runs the show at Keeneland while he’s in Saratoga. LoPresti doesn’t want divisions, he doesn’t want to race in the winter, he doesn’t want to email training instructions and rely on all his horses breezing every seven days. I called him once and left him a message. He called me back and said he couldn’t talk earlier because he was on his tractor. He likes driving his tractor.

In a game that will tame lions, LoPresti isn’t roaring.

“He’s once in a lifetime. How will I ever have a horse like this again?” LoPresti said. “When he was younger, before he ran, I thought he was a really nice horse, but I’ve always tried to get horses to go easy, the way I want them to go. When he galloped, he was always strong, we thought he was a run-off, then when I started to figure out, he needs to gallop 13, 14 to the furlong. Anything other than that, you’re making him mad, once I got by all that, when I realized that’s the way this horse trains…now, I don’t have to train him that hard.”

LoPresti followed Wise Dan’s meandering path past Danny Gargan’s barn, around Chad Brown’s barn, onto the old Horse Haven track, past the soccer field, toward Union Avenue and eventually back to his sanctuary under the trees on the backside of the main track.

Back at the barn, the trainer stood and analyzed how he walked, how much he drank, how much he was blowing. He leaned in and straightened Wise Dan’s cooler. The 6-year-old gelding, minutes after bending trees across the road, reached and snapped at his arm. LoPresti never flinched.