Trainer Charlie LoPresti contemplated the question, scuffed his work boots in the dirt a little, answered with a thoughtful air.
"Wise Dan? Well, he's a little bit more mature, more settled...I would say he's every bit as good as where I had him last season."
If the Horse of the Year has changed in any way since his victory in the 2012 Fourstardave Handicap (gr. IIT), a title he seeks to defend at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 10, it is less in the physical department and more in the area of legacy—undefeated since then, with seven graded stakes victories, five of them in grade I events, including a record-setting run in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT).
Leaving Saratoga, where he won the Fourstardave by five lengths on a yielding track, Wise Dan went on to win the Ricoh Woodbine Mile (Can-IT), Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT), and Breeders' Cup Mile. In 2013 he's taken the Maker's 46 Mile (gr. IT), Woodford Reserve Turf Handicap (gr. IT), and his most recent start, the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT).
Many have criticized this years' campaign for the three-time Eclipse Award winner, who has followed a conservative route under the supervision of LoPresti and owner/breeder Morton Fink. For LoPresti, however, the season is not about proving how talented Wise Dan is with a major dalliance from the success he found on the grass 2012.
"There's a lot of people who think I'm a chicken, that I don't want to run the horse (on dirt again), but that's not the case," LoPresti said.
Wise Dan won the 2011 Clark Handicap (gr. I) on dirt, and was second in the 2012 Stephen Foster (gr. I) by a head. And although LoPresti would have liked to try racing his champ in the Aug. 3 Whitney Invitational (gr. I)—in which half brother Successful Dan finished second—with Fink at the helm this year has become about putting the 6-year-old son of Wiseman's Ferry in a position to win each time out while successfully guiding him to a second Breeders' Cup championship run.
"It's Mr. Fink's horse and that's what he wants to do. I'm going to abide by whatever it is, unless I think it's detrimental to the horse. Then I'm going to challenge him," LoPresti said. "He's been a very good owner to me, and I will do whatever he would like to do, within reason. He knows if I think what he is doing is going to be detrimental to the horse, I'm going to tell him. But what he's done has not been detrimental to the horse.
"Maybe in a lot of people's eyes he's not showcasing how good he really is, but that's okay. They can criticize all they want, but Wise Dan, when he's right...I don't know that there's a horse around that can beat him. And right now, he's on. He's very on."
Anyone who doubts it need only watch footage of Wise Dan's July 27 work over the Oklahoma turf course. Not asked for anything by regular exercise rider Damien Rock, the gelding went a beastly five furlongs in :57.38, galloping out six furlongs in 1:09.16 and seven in 1:22.56. His opening three-eighths fraction was :34 4/5 seconds.
The trainer tightened screws for the one-mile Fourstardave, in which Wise Dan will carry highweight of 129 pounds including Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, with an easy four-furlong dirt move Aug. 3 in :49.59. Wise Dan will break from the inside against six others in the Fourstardave, giving his rivals 11-14 pounds.
"I never in my life had a horse like this," LoPresti said. "People don't believe me when I tell them, but he's a freak of nature."
Ask Al Stall Jr. how good he thinks Wise Dan is, and the horseman who will saddle Claiborne Farm and Adele Dillschneider's Lea against the champ makes a quick correction.
"Not good. Great. Great. Hall of Fame, first time on the ballot. What else can you say? To be that kind of horse, you have to have everything come together. Talent, and mind, and certainly soundness."
Stall, who played the upsetter with Blame when he beat Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), sends out 4-year-old Lea from outside post 7 against the highweight. Never off the board in seven starts with a 4-2-1 record, last time out the copper-penny chestnut closed with a strong run in the June 29 Firecracker at Churchill Downs. But he could not usurp his elder Wise Dan, who rumbled by two lengths despite bumping the hedge over a boggy turf course. Instead, he settled for a second that Stall feels sets him up well for the Fourstardave.
"It's our third race back off a good freshening," Stall said of the upcoming start for his First Samurai colt, who is 2-for-2 at Saratoga and counts the 2012 Commonwealth Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT) among his victories. Lea will carry 117 pounds with Joel Rosario in the irons.
"When we ran against Wise Dan in the Firecracker, he'd already won two other grade I races this year and we'd won a three-other-than allowance off the turf. So we lacked quite a bit of recency. Straight handicapping, we're sitting on a pretty good race. Whether that's good enough to win, I have no idea."
Stall said Lea had every excuse to run poorly in the Firecracker, but delivered instead.
"That was the race I was worried about the most," Stall said. "Because his first race back off the layup was an easy race, a four-horse field going one turn that came off the turf. So basically, second start after a seven-month layoff, we go into a grade II against the Horse of the Year on a bog. Literally, the track was a bog.
"If there was a race where a little bit of seasoning and fitness could have gotten to him, I thought that would have been the race. And for him to fight on and survive the bobbling and all the stuff they were doing that night, I thought that was a really, really good race. We can't worry about Wise Dan, we're just worried about Lea, period. But sure, a chance to upset him? It's kind of fun for us to be involved with something like that."
Trainer John Shirreffs was one who fell victim to Stall's best-known upsetting tactics with Zenyatta. In this race he sends out St. George Farm's multiple grade II winner Mr. Commons, a 5-year-old son of Artie Schiller who frequently runs competitively in graded stakes but whose last win dates back to Feb. 4, 2012, in the Arcadia Stakes (gr. IIT). A one-time Triple Crown contender—he was third in the 2011 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and ran eighth in the Preakness (gr. I)—he finished fifth in the 2011 and 2012 editions of the Breeders' Cup Mile.
"We don't think Mr. Commons has run his best race yet," Shirreffs said. "He's very talented, but he always seems to have some sort of something happen in the race that prevents him from running his best."
Last time out, Mr. Commons was fifth in a July 24 turf allowance after running wide in his Saratoga debut. He has raced lightly this season, with just a fourth in the March 2 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (gr. IT) at Santa Anita Park and a third behind Wise Dan and Data Link in the April 12 Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland preceding his Saratoga start. In the Fourstardave he too will carry 117, and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado from post 4.
"He's got a really good kick but it's not a real long one, so the rider has to be patient and wait for an opening and then take him to the outside and go," Shirreffs said. "He hasn't been able to do that for a long time. For his last race, he hadn't run for a while. The weather had been kind of raining on and off, so I didn't get the chance to work him a lot. Considering that, I thought he ran well. He needed a race, and from that race to this, he's really trained forwardly."
Along with Stall, Shirreffs feels tremendous respect for Wise Dan.
"I think he's a great horse," Shirreffs said. "I saw him in California and was really surprised because when I'd seen him just walking around, I thought 'You know, he looks okay.' But once I saw him move, it was different. That horse moves so well, and he's just got a really long stride...he looks great."
Leaning back in a garden chair outside his new base of Barn 77 near the Oklahoma oval, Shirreffs looked up with a quiet grin. He wouldn't say whether he felt like the potential upsetter, or whether Wise Dan was a giant of historic proportions. But he did mention Saratoga's reputation as the graveyard of favorites.
"You hope for having good luck and everybody else has good luck and they get to run their races," he said. "Favorites don't always win, so there's always that possibility, and that's why they have to run the race."
And back in Al Stall's barn on the main track side, the affable Cajun mentioned another perk to running in the Fourstardave.
"Hey, it's $100,000 for second," he said.