There are many thrills and special moments in Thoroughbred racing, but nothing is more exciting than “the moment.”
You go to the track in the mornings and the afternoon hoping to experience it, anticipating the impact and wondering just what it might be.
It’s nothing one could ever plan. It just happens and it could occur at any time.
The moment could be an eye-catching workout, a performance by a 2-year-old that shows talent that young horses rarely display, or it could come in a race by a horse of any age who overcomes difficulty or takes a bold step forward that makes one reconsider his or her future.
And then there’s Wise Dan’s victory in Sunday’s Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
The reigning Horse of the Year won the one-mile race on grass at the Toronto track and was heavily favored to win it again. As the horses loaded into the starting gate at the Toronto track, it seemed a loss would be the only thing that could surprise us.
He ran and he won. Wise Dan has now done that in 10 of his last 11 races and 18 times in 25 career starts. But with that record of success and an absurd level of expectation in advance of Sunday’s run, trainer Charlie LoPresti’s star still managed to take our collective breath away.
Jockey John Velazquez barely moved a muscle after the Keeneland-based 6-year-old gelding popped out of his slot in the starting gate. The champ was in cruise control virtually every step of the way.
Nevertheless, jaws dropped after his run. A search for appropriate adjectives yielded was fruitless. The most common reaction came in the form of one syllable and three letters: “Wow.”
In what could be best described as a workout that carried a $600,000 paycheck, Wise Dan’s stroll over the Woodbine course ended in a course-record winning time of 1:31.75.
Given the apparent ease of his run, the course record was remarkable. But it was not the first such performance on a big stage. He also set a course record last November at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, the race that capped his “Horse of the Year” campaign.
But brilliance of his performance in the Woodbine Mile was so fantastic, it easily qualified as one of those elusive “moments.” Sure, we expected to see something good, perhaps something wonderful. Wise Dan surpassed all expectations in a race during which future opponents and his handful of critics – yes, there are always critics – looked for some hint of vulnerability.
They didn’t see one in a performance that left any onlooker with a single question: If Wise Dan is this good and fast now, what will happen when he needs to run a little?
The next opportunity to answer that question could come in Keeneland’s Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 5, a race Wise Dan won last year. But Lopresti could elect to wait until his bid to repeat on the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Nov. 2 to send his champ back into competition.
“Even though it looked so easy you never know how much a race like that takes out of a horse because of the strain he’s been under,” LoPresti said after Sunday’s race. “But I’ll only run him if it’s right for the horse . . . he’s going to have to tell us.
The Breeders’ Cup Mile has often been a playground for European-based milers, a group that includes the likes of two-time winner Miesque, Royal Academy and three-time winner Goldikova.
But as we approach the 2013 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, Wise Dan’s casual brilliance in Sunday’s win in Toronto should serve as a warning flare to all European stars looking to contest the Mile this time around. The defending winner and American champion is on the road to return to Southern California, and there is a very real chance that he could be a better horse than he was a year ago.
Another horse looking to re-conjure the magic of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita is Janis Whitham’s Fort Larned, winner of last year’s running of the $5 million Classic.
Regional racing fans will have a chance to see Fort Larned prep for his Classic defense in Churchill Downs’ September Meet. Trainer Ian Wilkes announced Tuesday that the winner of this year’s Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs would bypass a planned trip to run in Belmont Park’s Jockey Club Gold Cup in favor of a prep in the first running of the $175,000 Homecoming Classic, the highlight of the meet’s “Downs After Dark” night racing program on Saturday, Sept. 28.
“Our goal is to try and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic again,” Wilkes said. “We want to do what we feel is right for the horse. We keep him here and run him a mile and an eighth. He’s on his track with a one-race ship. Otherwise I’m going to ship to Belmont and ship back again.”
The 2013 campaign for Whitham’s homebred son of E Dubai has been, at best, uneven. It got off to an unusual start in early March when the horse stumbled at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap and unseated jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Then came a dull fifth-place run in the Oaklawn Park Handicap, followed by a spectacular return to form in a 6 ¼-length Stephen Foster triumph over one of the strongest fields of older horses assembled this year.
The brilliant effort at Churchill Downs was followed by a fifth-place finish behind Cross Traffic in Saratoga’s Whitney, a race Fort Larned won in 2012. A muscle strain prompted Wilkes to scratch a planned run by Fort Larned in the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga. He returned to his home track at Churchill Downs, where he has turned in a pair of strong works over the past two weeks.
A sharp five-furlong work in :59.80 with Hernandez in the saddle left Wilkes smiling.
“He came off the track with authority. He walked off the track like he owned the place. That’s what I liked about it – he’s got that air of confidence about him.”
If history is an indicator, and it always is, Fort Larned will need to be at the absolute top of his game to win back-to-back Classics.
Since its first running in 1984, only Tiznow (2000-2001) has won the race twice and in successive renewals. Horses that have attempted, and failed, to complete the double include Unbridled, Cigar, Skip Away, Curlin and Zenyatta.
But Fort Larned, who led every step of the way in the 2012 Classic, is the only horse in 2013 with a chance to achieve what those other champions could not. Wilkes hopes the run over his home track in the Homecoming Classic will be just what his horse needs to place his name in a special spot in Breeders’ Cup history.