Morton Fink's reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, that big, strong locomotive of a runner, galloped on the turf at Santa Anita Park the morning of Oct. 31 in preparation for his defense of the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT).
The 6-year-old gelding headed to the California oval around 10 a.m. (PDT), taking the same sauntering route from Barn 36 that he followed last year with trainer Charlie LoPresti two days before his record-setting run. Wise Dan took in the surroundings with typical presence of mind, despite attracting an entourage of reporters and photographers who tucked in behind him as he made his way to the gap under regular exercise rider Damian Rock. Once on the turf course he stood quietly with the pony before breaking off to gallop a circuit of the track.
LoPresti watched from the same place in the Santa Anita grandstand as he did leading up to the 2012 Mile. Rock eased the three-time Eclipse Award winner into a comfortable rhythm well along the outside of the track, and Wise Dan did business in powerful but relaxed fashion. He still clipped home down the lane in "two minute lick" fashion, kept well in the center of the strip to avoid an unintentional work.
"That was good, it was what we wanted," LoPresti said. "He's just got that big old stride on him and a great big motor, and that's why when you breeze him he breezes the way he does. That's why he is the way he is; he's real effortless."
Wise Dan arrived from Kentucky on the evening of Oct. 29 to defend his title in the Mile (full preview here). Having lost for the first time this season last time out in a soggy off-the-turf edition of the Oct. 5 Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. I) at Keeneland, the chestnut son of Wiseman's Ferry has been subject to doubters who wonder whether his form has tailed off after nine consecutive graded stakes victories, six of them in grade I events.
"I don't think he's lost a step," LoPresti said. "That was the whole plan about the Shadwell; I thought the Shadwell was a stepping-stone for this race, it would be a workout for this race. And basically it was a paid workout, even though we didn't win... off of that race and the work that he had and the strong gallop that he had the other day, he should be in good shape (going into the 2013 Mile)."
Wise Dan was second to Silver Max in the Shadwell Turf Mile moved to 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack after a record deluge hit the Lexington oval. Prior to that runner-up effort, he was undefeated for the year, stringing together victories in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile (gr. IT)—a record 1:31.75—a second consecutive win in the Fourstardave Handicap (gr. IIT), victory in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT), and a win in the Maker's 46 Mile (gr. IT) to start out the season.
Thanks to his finish 1 1/4 lengths back of Silver Max in the Shadwell, Wise Dan has his detractors. Then again, so do Royal Delta, Fort Larned, and Groupie Doll, to name a few other defending Breeders' Cup winners who come in off a loss.
"They were down on Game On Dude last year, right? Now all the sudden they're all back on his bandwagon," LoPresti said. "They're down on Fort Larned right now, 'He's not the same,' well, let him win and they'll be right back on the bandwagon again. Groupie Doll, too. I mean, Secretariat was beat, Forego was beat, John Henry, look at Zenyatta...I didn't want him to get beat, but he did. I was sad, I didn't sleep all night; I was sad for the horse, you know, I just was sad he got beat."
On Oct. 30, one day before stretching his legs over the California track, Wise Dan had an emphatic answer for those who wonder if he's lost a step after suffering his first defeat of 2013 one race before the Mile. With exercise rider Rock keeping a firm hand on the shank, the Horse of the Year powered around the walking ring and kicked up his heels...as if to punctuate LoPresti's assurances that he's raring to go.