The champ is back.
Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, making his first start since returning from May 16 colic surgery, held off 29-1 shot Optimizer by a nose Aug. 30 to win the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap (gr. IIT) at Saratoga Race Course (VIDEO).
Morton Fink's heavily favored homebred gelding covered the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:39.08, just off the course record of 1:38.91 set by Fourstardave in 1991.
"He was really tough. He showed he has the heart of a champion," Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez remarked. "It's incredible to have this horse coming back."
Wise Dan gave racegoers a nerve-wracking moment before the start of the Bernard Baruch when he reared up in the gate and unseated Velazquez. But the 7-year-old son of Wiseman's Ferry was reloaded without further issue and broke well, settling into a rail-skimming pocket trip in fourth behind a pace set by Five Iron .
Wise Dan swung out around the turn as three-quarters went in 1:09.77, and was set down for the drive to pass the tiring front-runners through a 1:33.20 mile. Optimizer made a determined late charge, but the six-time Eclipse Award winner held him off at the line, securing his 22nd career victory from 30 starts in a photo finish.
"(He carried) 127 pounds coming from a long layoff," Velazquez said. "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. What happened to him, training and come back and run with 127 pounds, that's incredible."
"We wanted a good race for him to get started with," trainer Charlie LoPresti said. "He's been through a lot. I knew he was training good and I knew he was going to run good. I wouldn't have been disappointed if he was beat today; it would have been something to build on. He showed today why he is the two-time Horse of the Year."
LoPresti opted to run Wise Dan in the Bernard Baruch instead of the Aug. 9 Fourstardave Handicap (gr. IIT)—a race he took in 2012 and 2013—because the chestnut gelding needed a few more weeks to return to form.
"We wanted to run here (at Saratoga)," LoPresti said. "I came here to run. I came here to train, and I came here to run. I really wanted to do it, and I'm really glad that we did."
Wise Dan, who had six breezes at Saratoga as part of his recovery, received an ovation from an appreciative crowd as he jogged back to and then walked into the winner's circle, and the crowd applauded again after he posed for his photo and was being led back to the barn.
"He's a trouper, man," LoPresti said. "He knows how to win races. Johnny said he was tired. I can tell you, he's just an amazing horse. That's the way he wins."
Wise Dan's next target is the Oct. 4 Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT) at Keeneland en route to a bid at his third consecutive Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) win Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park. He remains undefeated in 2014, having aced repeat victories in the April 11 Maker's 46 Mile (gr. IT) and May 3 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) before undergoing surgery.
"He'll build from this race, I have to think," LoPresti said. "God willing, he comes back good. He'll be way tougher next time."
Favored at odds of 4-5 in a field of eight, Wise Dan returned $3.60, $3.10, and $2.20 while Optimizer brought $14.60 and $8.20, and rounded out a $69.50 exacta. Five Iron was third and paid $4.70, as Sayaad, Bio Pro, North Star Boy, Sky Blazer, Boisterous , and Paris Vegas completed the order of finish. Lea and Red Rifle were main track only entrants.
Bred in Kentucky out of the Wolf Power mare Lisa Danielle, Wise Dan collected the 18th graded stakes score of a career that includes 10 grade I victories. His earnings now stand at $6,952,920.