Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan overcame a host of adversity to win the Firecracker Handicap (G2) June 29 at Churchill Downs.
In a driving rainstorm over a yielding turf course, Wise Dan overcame a brush of the inside hedge, a bobble in deep stretch and a lofty 128-pound impost to win the 23rd running of the $168,450 Firecracker Handicap.
Mort Fink’s homebred Wise Dan, ridden by John Velazquez and trained by Charlie LoPresti, ran one mile on a yielding turf course in 1:39.82 – the slowest renewal of the Firecracker – to beat Lea by two lengths.
It wasn’t easy for the world’s top ranked active runner in the latest Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.
After the field was reduced to five after a trio of late scratches, Seruni dictated the pace from the inside through pedestrian fractions of :24.66 for the first quarter mile, :49.06 for the half and
1:14.71 for six furlongs. Wise Dan was bottled up along the inside, but slipped through a narrow opening along the inside while entering the stretch. He bumped and brushed the shrub at the eighth pole when Seruni, ridden by Corey Lanerie, was guided in. He recovered to shake off that rival and gamely edge clear but the adventurous trip wasn’t done yet. Inside the final 100 yards, the champion bobbled over the surface and appeared to briefly lose his footing.
“It was really tough (on me),” LoPresti said. “I’m just glad he got it done. I was really worried about it. I had been worried about the weights. It wasn’t so much the weight on him, but the spread. The first thing I said to Johnny (Velazquez) was, ‘Is he OK?’ because it wasn’t a pretty race. We got to hope he comes back good. Now that it’s over I can tell you I was worried. I’m proud of him. He’s a pretty amazing horse.”
Velazquez, meanwhile, remained cool throughout. “I was in the right spot the whole way and he was going well the whole way,” the Hall of Fame rider said. “I didn’t want to make a premature move. I decided to wait. I had to work my way out. If you watch the head-on, he brushes up against the bushes and he even jumped right at the eighth-pole. By the sixteenth-pole, though, he got through. He’s just a very good horse. I know he can handle it when things get tight. He’s big enough to push his way through. I’ve ridden him that way before and I wasn’t worried about it.”
Wise Dan, the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile champ who collected his seventh consecutive victory, paid $2.40 and $2.10 as the odds-on favorite. Lea, who carried 11 pounds less than the winner at 117, got up for second and paid $3 with Brian Hernandez in the saddle.
Wise Dan, a chestnut Kentucky-bred 6-year-old gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry out of the productive Wolf Power-SAf mare Lisa Danielle, is the first horse to win the Firecracker twice. He won the 2011 renewal in his turf debut and has since won seven of his eight turf starts.
The $104,439 winner’s share of the purse jumped his career earnings to $4,164,070, which ranks 60th all-time among North American starters. He’s won 16 times from 23 starts.
Reed Palmer photo