In the end, none of it mattered.
Not the 17-week layoff since Wise Dan’s last race. Not the incision carved upon his belly during emergency surgery, not even a rare bout of fractiousness in an area where he is usually a total gentleman.
When Optimizer came to Wise Dan’s flank in deep stretch of the Grade II, $250,00 Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga Race Course, the former looked as if he might be a threat the two-time defending Horse of the Year could not fend off. Once the finish line photo was reviewed, Optimizer joined the above obstacles as just another in a countless list of challenges overcome by Morton Fink’s homebred champion.
Emotions exploded in the winner’s circle and around the Thoroughbred racing community Saturday afternoon as Wise Dan held off Optimizer by a nose to capture the 1 1/16-miles Bernard Baruch on the Saratoga turf in what was his first start since undergoing emergency colic surgery at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital on May 16.
As wonderfully as Wise Dan recovered from his bout with colic, no one was holding their breath more than Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti in anticipation of whether the 7-year-old gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry could run and fight in the aftermath of his surgery in the same manner that has earned him six Eclipse Awards to date.
Nerves got even more frayed when Wise Dan uncharacteristically acted up in the starting gate, rearing and unseating his Hall of Fame pilot, John Velazquez. It was business as usual when they reunited and sprang from post No. 5, sitting fourth through fractions of 23.26 and 46.32 en route to covering the distance in 1:39.08, just .17 off the course record of 1:38.91 set by Fourstardave in 1991.
“He showed today when he is the two-time Horse of the Year,” an emotional LoPresti said. “To overcome what he’s overcome…that’s the amazing thing about him. He’s been through a lot. I knew he was training good and I knew he was going to run good.”
LoPresti has been masterful at listening to what his gut and his stable star tells him is the best course of action. Thought the Lexington-based trainer initially considered bringing Wise Dan back in the Grade II Fourstardave Handicap on August 9, he opted to bypass that outing and give the chestnut monster more time and tightening works.
The Bernard Baruch indeed set up beautifully for Wise Dan as Five Iron set a honest pace on front end with Velazquez saving ground with his mount on the rail. Wise Dan rolled up three-wide outside of Sayaad around the final turn and was inching up under right-handed urging from Velazquez, but had longshot Optimizer rallying to his outside to give him all he could handle in the last handful of strides.
“He was really tough,” Velazquez said. “He showed he has the heart of a champion. (He carried) 127 pounds coming from a long layoff. When I got to the eighth pole, I didn’t think I got it. When I got past the sixteenth pole he was giving me everything he had and the other horse was coming from the outside. There was a little bit of doubt; he was getting tired. (I’m) incredibly proud. It’s incredible to have this horse coming back.”
Optimizer, sent off at 29-to-1 odds, was 1 1/4-lengths ahead of Five Iron who ended up third.
The Bernard Baruch improved Wise Dan’s record to 22 wins – ten of which have come in Grade I races - from 30 lifetime starts with earnings of $6,952,920.
A two-time defending winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Wise Dan opened his 2014 campaign with victories in the Grade I Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland and Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs before being sidelined. A start in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland on October 4 is likely the next stop for the gelding with a third straight run in the Breeders’ Cup Mile this November the ultimate goal.
“He’s a trouper, man,” LoPresti said. “He knows how to win races. I can tell you, he’s just an amazing horse. That’s the way he wins.
“He’ll build from this race, I have to think. He’ll be way tougher next time.