The conditions were dreadful, the weight spread oppressive, but Wise Dan found a way to overcome all adversity to capture the $168,450 Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) on the night of June 29 over yielding turf at rainy Churchill Downs (VIDEO).
The reigning Horse of the Year, under 128 pounds, scraped the hedge to get by pacesetter Seruni near mid-stretch and edged away to a two-length victory over the late-arriving Lea in the one-mile test. Final time was 1:39.82.
Wise Dan recorded his seventh consecutive victory and his eighth win in nine starts over the past two years for owner/breeder Mort Fink and trainer Charlie LoPresti. Reunited with John Velazquez for the first time since their track-record victory in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), the 6-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding is 3-for-3 in 2013.
"It was really tough (on me)," LoPresti said after viewing the proceedings. "I'm just glad he got it done. I was really worried about it.
"The first thing I said to Johnny (afterward) 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."
Wise Dan, out of the Wolf Power mare Lisa Danielle, won for the 16th time in his spectacular 23-race career and increased his earnings to $4,164,070.
Just five contested the Firecracker after three scratches, with Wise Dan the 1-5 favorite. Seruni, under Corey Lanerie, established the early lead over Ol Army with Lea settling third on the outside of Wise Dan, who left from the inside post and raced along the hedge in third or fourth. It was apparent that the strategy was to keep Wise Dan bottled up on the inside as the race unfolded through fractions of :24.66, :49.06, and 1:14.71.
Wise Dan was screaming out for room as the field made its way into the stretch and Velazquez decided to bring the champion along through a narrow gap along the inside. Seruni, under right-handed urging from Lanerie, attempted to keep Wise Dan pinned in, but Wise Dan would not be stopped in spite of being forced to steady on a couple of occasions. Wise Dan appeared to brush the hedge and make contact with Seruni, but he battled on to get the lead and inched away to another victory.
Velazquez 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."
Lea, closing on the outside under Brian Hernandez Jr., edged Seruni for second by a half-length.
Wise Dan won the Firecracker for the second time. His other victory in the race came in his first try on turf in 2011 at odds of 14-1 while toting 115 pounds. Wise Dan was coming off victories this year in the Makers 46 Mile Stakes (gr. IT) at Keeneland April 12 and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) over yielding Churchill sod May 4. He has now won eight of nine turf races in his career while 3-for-3 over the Churchill lawn.
The winner spotted his rivals from 11 to 13 pounds and paid $2.40 and $2.10. Lea, carrying 117, returned $3. There was no show wagering.
Seruni, Daddy Nose Best , and Ol Army completed the order. Corporate Jungle, Dimension, and Finnegans Wake all scratched.