There's no doubt he's the best horse in the race, but can reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan overcome his 128-pound impost in the $150,000 Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) June 29 against a modest group at Churchill Downs?
That's the question Wise Dan, a winner of five straight grade I races, must answer when he dips down into softer company for the Firecracker, where he will be asked to carry a career-high weight assignment.
Wise Dan would be making his first appearance against something less than grade I opponents since capturing the one-mile Fourstardave Handicap (gr. II) by five lengths while toting 119 last August over a yielding inner turf course at Saratoga Race Course.
The Firecracker, a one-mile turf event that Wise Dan won in 2011 while shouldering 115, headlines Churchill's Saturday night program. It is scheduled as race 9 of 11 with a 10:11 p.m. EDT expected post.
Wise Dan would be spotting his six or seven rivals (Corporate Jungle could scratch) from 11 to 15 pounds. It's a tall order but seems appropriate given just how much more the 6-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding has accomplished compared with the rest of the field.
Trained by Charlie LoPresti for owner/breeder Morton Fink, Wise Dan is coming off a 4 3/4-length romp in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) on a yielding Matt Winn turf course on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 4. His only other start this year was a victory in the Maker's 46 Mile (gr. IT) over the grass at his home Keeneland course April 12.
He also captured the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT), and Ricoh Woodbine Mile (Can-IT) in succession last year following the Fourstardave.
"He's doing as well as I could ask," LoPresti said of his superstar, who is looking to become the first two-time winner of the Firecracker. Jon Court rode him in 2011.
A seven-time winner from eight tries on grass, Wise Dan will be reunited with John Velazquez for the first time this season. Velazquez was injured earlier this year and was replaced by Jose Lezcano.
Kitten's Joy holds the record for most weight carried by a winner of the Firecracker with 124 pounds in 2005. Five years ago, Curlin won the 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs while toting 128 pounds.
The main rival for Wise Dan could be Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's Lea, who is weighted at 117. A 4-year-old chestnut son of First Samurai , Lea ended his 2012 campaign with a victory in the Commonwealth Turf (gr. IIIT) at Churchill Downs in November.
In his lone start of the year, Lea cruised to a 3 1/4-length win in an off-the-turf allowance/optional claiming race on a sloppy track at Churchill June 1 in his dirt debut. Trained by Al Stall Jr., Lea has a record of four wins, one second, and one third from six starts.
"We picked this race in November to set us up for the rest of the year," Stall said. "It was part of our schedule all along. We didn't expect to face the Horse of the Year. When the weights came out, we felt like 11 pounds was enough to give it a whirl."
Also weighted at 117 pounds is Gary and Mary West's Corporate Jungle, who most recently finished second in the Swoon's Son at Arlington Park in his first start for trainer Tom Proctor. While in the barn of trainer Chad Brown, Corporate Jungle won the 2012 Appleton (gr. IIIT) on turf at Gulfstream Park and finished second behind Wise Dan in the Fourstardave.
Proctor said this week that he is likely to scratch Corporate Jungle if Wise Dan starts.
The other graded-stakes winner in the field is Bob and Cathy Zollars' Daddy Nose Best, who won the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) on synthetic and Sunland Derby (gr. III) over dirt last year for trainer Steve Asmussen. Seeking to end a seven-race losing streak, the 4-year-old Scat Daddy colt was most recently a distant second behind Silver Max in the off-the-turf Opening Verse at Churchill June 1.
Donegal Racing's Finnegans Wake comes out of the Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) June 8 at Belmont Park, where the Dale Romans-trained son of Powerscourt ran fourth. The 4-year-old colt is seeking his first stakes win.
$150,000 Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 9, 10:11 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 Mile (Turf)
PP. Horse Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Corporate Jungle (KY), A Garcia, 117, T F Proctor
2. Wise Dan (KY), J R Velazquez, 128, C LoPresti
3. Dimension (GB), V Lebron, 113, C Murphy
4. Lea (KY), B J Hernandez Jr., 117, A M Stall Jr.
5. Finnegans Wake (KY), J L Castanon, 116, D L Romans
6. Daddy Nose Best (KY), R Napravnik, 116 S M Asmussen
7. Seruni (KY), C J Lanerie, 115, P J Oliver
8. Ol Army (KY), J K Court, 114, C Peery