SARATOGA SPRINGS Get in the pocket.
Get out of it when the moment is right.
There’s a crystal purity to Wise Dan’s style of running that was matched by a flawless blue sky and the steady timing of John Velazquez’s hands on Saturday.
One race after he muddled and shoved his way to a roughhouse win through a driving rain at Churchill Downs, the reigning Horse of the Year won the Grade II Fourstardave by 11⁄4 lengths over a game King Kreesa to supply a treat to 31,894 profoundly appreciative fans at Saratoga Race Course.
Wise Dan carried 129 pounds, at least 11 more than each of his five rivals, but smoothly did his thing anyway, supporting comparisons to some of the great handicap horses of the past.
It was a different brand of relief for trainer Charlie LoPresti, who justifiably fretted over the danger component of the soggy Firecracker at Churchill on June 29.
This time, he simply wanted to keep his Big Horse undefeated for the season, and the 6-year-old chestnut gelding delivered . . . just as he has every time he’s raced since winning last year’s Fourstardave.
“You know what, to prove that he’s a great horse like all the horses everybody’s talking about, he has to carry that weight and he has to prove that he’s that good, and I think today he proved that he’s a very good horse,” LoPresti said.
“It tells me that he’s every bit of what the people think he is, and maybe he will go down as, like, a Forego and John Henry and Kelso and some of those other horses they’ve been talking about.”
Wise Dan, bred and owned by 83-year-old Morton Fink, pushed his winning streak to eight, begun when he was five lengths better than Corporate Jungle in last year’s Fourstardave.
Seven of those races have been one-mile turf stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita that wrapped up his 2012 championship season.
He has proven to be a people’s champion, evidenced by the relaxed reception fans have found at barn 26 on the Saratoga backstretch, as well as the cheers that poured over him on his way to the paddock and the standing ovation that greeted him on his way back to the winner’s circle.
“Oh, you can’t imagine the people that were cheering for him as I was walking through the walkway to the paddock,” LoPresti said. “And I can’t tell you the amount of people that have come by my barn this week, tourists . . . ‘Can I please see Wise Dan?’
“We had him on the vibration plate, and four ladies walked up to me, and they had their cameras. And I said, ‘Well, c’mon here, get closer.’ And they all put a hand on him and took pictures. That’s what racing’s all about, that’s what we do this for, to have a hero like that. It was just like when Zenyatta was running. She was a hero. It’s kind of a neat feeling.”
“Neat” also describes the trip Wise Dan took in the Fourstardave, as in how crisply it stuck to the textbook Wise Dan ride.
The day was clear and dry, but rain that forced races off the turf on Thursday and Friday left the inner course listed as “good” on Saturday.
Even without the scratch of Za Approval, the New York-bred King Kreesa loomed as a threat on the front end, based on wins in the Kingston and Poker at a mile on the turf at Belmont Park.
Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., he made good on that threat by getting away with a comfortable 24.24 for the first quarter-mile, tracked closely by long shot Skyring, with Wise Dan, who broke from the
No. 1 post, tucked in to his customary inside spot.
Skyring dropped out of it before they were six furlongs gone, leaving Wise Dan and Velazquez to decide when to spring off the hedge and chase King Kreesa from the outside.
They did so just before coming out of the tight turn, and it became a matter of gradually grinding down King Kreesa, who was assigned 12 pounds fewer than Wise Dan.
“I knew the horse on the lead was going to take me a long way,” Velazquez said. “I was right where I wanted to be, not too far back. I knew at the time I pulled out it was going to be a fight down the lane. And I know my horse is a fighter. It was awesome.”
“The way he was cruising, he should run by that horse,” LoPresti said. “He never hangs or does anything like that. And that’s what he did.”
The relatively narrow margin of victory was a product of the fact that King Kreesa ran the race of his life and that Velazquez confidently executed a vigorous hand ride without going to the stick.
The two horses were even from a furlong to a sixteenth out before Wise Dan pulled away.
“I knew my horse was going to keep digging,” said a beaming Jeremiah Englehart, King Kreesa’s trainer. “With 129 pounds, Wise Dan still had the heart to run him down. It takes a real nice horse, and he is a champion.”
“I had a lot of horse at the quarter pole, and I thought I could win the race, but Wise Dan is a great horse,” Ortiz said. “I knew he was going to come.”
“The horse who was second was peaking at the right time,” Velazquez said. “But my horse still did it, and with a lot of weight on top of him, too.”
“Johnny had so much confidence,” LoPresti said.
In terms of the season, LoPresti has Wise Dan in the pocket now.
Fink is adamant about closely following the same race schedule as last year, which means a steady diet of turf miles.
Meanwhile, Game on Dude is 4-for-4 this season, like Wise Dan, while running dirt route stakes and garnering increasing attention as a potential Horse of the Year.
Morton Fink wants to stay in this pocket.
He’s the boss and pays the bills, so LoPresti complies when it comes to scheduling and does his job, which is to keep the champ in the championship form that was on exquisite display in the Fourstardave.
“I was just glad it was over,” LoPresti said. “I wasn’t worried about it. I thought he could win, but horse racing is horse racing. Anything can happen. They beat Secretariat here.”