Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan overcame a driving rainstorm, a yielding turf course, a brush of the inside hedge, a bobble in deep stretch and a lofty 128-pound impost to win the 23rd running of the $168,450 Firecracker Handicap (Grade II) on Saturday night at Churchill Downs.
The Firecracker was the highlight of a rainy Saturday night that featured three stakes events on Churchill Downs’ 11-race “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” nighttime racing program. A crowd of 19,753 braved the soggy elements.
Mort Fink’s homebred Wise Dan, ridden by John Velazquez and trained by Charlie LoPresti, ran one mile on a yielding turf course in 1:39.82 – the slowest renewal of the Firecracker – to beat Lea by two lengths.
It wasn’t easy for the world’s top ranked active runner in the latest Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.
After the field was reduced to five after a trio of late scratches, Seruni dictated the pace from the inside through pedestrian fractions of :24.66 for the first quarter mile, :49.06 for the half and 1:14.71 for six furlongs. Wise Dan was bottled up along the inside, but slipped through a narrow opening along the inside while entering the stretch. He bumped and brushed the shrub at the eighth pole when Seruni, ridden by Corey Lanerie, was guided in. He recovered to shake off that rival and gamely edge clear but the adventurous trip wasn’t done yet. Inside the final 100 yards, the champion bobbled over the surface and appeared to briefly lose his footing.
“It was really tough (on me),” LoPresti said. “I’m just glad he got it done. I was really worried about it. I had been worried about the weights. It wasn’t so much the weight on him, but the spread. The first thing I said to Johnny (Velazquez) was, ‘Is he OK?’ because it wasn’t a pretty race. We got to hope he comes back good. Now that it’s over I can tell you I was worried. I’m proud of him. He’s a pretty amazing horse.”
Velazquez, meanwhile, remained cool throughout. “I was in the right spot the whole way and he was going well the whole way,” the Hall of Fame rider said. “I didn’t want to make a premature move. I decided to wait. I had to work my way out. If you watch the head-on, he brushes up against the bushes and he even jumped right at the eighth-pole. By the sixteenth-pole, though, he got through. He’s just a very good horse. I know he can handle it when things get tight. He’s big enough to push his way through. I’ve ridden him that way before and I wasn’t worried about it.”
Wise Dan, the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile champ who collected his seventh consecutive victory, paid $2.40 and $2.10 as the odds-on favorite. Lea, who carried 11 pounds less than the winner at 117, got up for second and paid $3 with Brian Hernandez in the saddle. Seruni (117 pounds), Daddy Nose Best (116) and Ol Army (115) completed the order of finish. Corporate Jungle, Dimension-GB and Finnegans Wake were scratched.
Wise Dan, a chestnut Kentucky-bred 6-year-old gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry out of the productive Wolf Power-SAf mare Lisa Danielle, is the first horse to win the Firecracker twice. He won the 2011 renewal in his turf debut and has since won seven of his eight turf starts.
The $104,439 winner’s share of the purse jumped his career earnings to $4,164,070, which ranks 60th all-time among North American starters. He’s won 16 times from 23 starts.
Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Wise Dan, winner: “It was really tough (on me). I’m just glad he got it done. I was really worried about it. I had been worried about the weights. It wasn’t so much the weight on him, but the spread. The first thing I said to Johnny was, ‘Is he OK?’ because it wasn’t a pretty race. We got to hope he comes back good. Now that it’s over I can tell you I was worried. I’m proud of him. He’s a pretty amazing horse.
“I have to give (Racing Secretary) Ben Huffman credit. He’s a good friend of mine and I know he was in a tough spot. It worked out good.”
Q. It got really down for him down on the hedge… “When he was coming down the lane, Corey (Lanerie on Seruni) was laying all over him and I thought, ‘Get off him and let him through.’”
Q. He ran like a horse of the year... “He needed to with the weight on him and the adversity of the weather and the way the race was run. They rode against him. They rode to beat him.”
John Velazquez, rider on Wise Dan, winner: “I was in the right spot the whole way and he was going well the whole way. I didn’t want to make a premature move. I decided to wait. I had to work my way out. If you watch the head-on, he brushes up against the bushes and he even jumped right at the eighth-pole. By the sixteenth-pole, though, he got through. He’s just a very good horse. I know he can handle it when things get tight. He’s big enough to push his way through. I’ve ridden him that way before and I wasn’t worried about it.”
Brian Hernandez Jr., rider on Lea, runner-up: “It was a great race. It set up great and we had Wise Dan right where we wanted him the whole way. Going around the second turn he bobbled on the inside of us a couple of times and I thought we were going to be able to beat him. But he got lucky and got through on the inside. My horse ran an amazing race. Anytime you get beat a length and a half to the Horse of the Year, you ran a big race.”
Al Stall Jr., trainer of Lea, runner-up: “We were happy with how he ran. It was his second race off the bench and he was actually turned-out and enjoying himself in South Carolina during the winter. So after an easy one-turn race on the dirt to go to a very salty Horse of the Year in a two-turn race on a boggy course, I thought he showed himself pretty well. I think we’re on schedule for the rest of the season.”
Q: Did you have a notion when you saw Wise Dan with nowhere to go down along the inside that Lea might be able to get it done? “The race showed up about how we thought it would. I didn’t know Seruni was going to be on the lead, but we knew Wise Dan would be kind of in there and no one would really let him out. They didn’t really let him out, he (John Velazquez) just had enough horse to go where he wanted to go. So we’re happy with everything and we’re on schedule for Saratoga.”
Q: Is Saratoga a definite target? “I’m not a 100 percent sure, but I imagine the Fourstardave is what he’s (Claiborne Farm’s Seth Hancock) thinking of and what we’re thinking of, also. So we’ll just keep on going.”
Corey Lanerie, rider on Seruni, third: “He ran huge. I found myself on the lead – I really thought I’d be sitting second or third, but he really got out of there at the gate. He was going nice and easy. I really didn’t think the hedge was the place to be, but I was pretty close to it and I never knew Wise Dan was right behind me. I didn’t expect him to be there. I thought he (jockey John Velazquez) would just keep him out in the clear. So I just went on and rode my horse down the lane and when he switched leads, he came off and gave him just a little room to get through. The best horse won.”
Q: So it wasn’t a matter of you trying to keep Wise Dan pinned down in there? “No, no – I hate to let a horse through. I kick myself if that happens, you know?
Q: When did you realize it was Wise Dan? “As soon as I saw that white blaze and I heard Johnny V on him.”