Mort Fink’s Wise Dan stalked the pace and rallied to take over from Strike Impact in deep stretch to draw off and win the 21st running of the Grade II, $203,000 Firecracker Handicap Presented by GE by 2 ¾ lengths over Baryshnikov on Monday to close out the 38-day Spring Meet at Churchill Downs.
Trained by Charlie Lopresti and ridden by Jon Court, Wise Dan ran the mile on a firm Matt Winn Turf Course in 1:34.59. It was Wise Dan’s fifth victory in 10 starts, but first on turf. He became the first horse to win the Firecracker without a previous race on the grass.
Wise Dan is a 4-year-old gelded homebred son of Wiseman’s Ferry out of the Wolf Power-SAf mare Lisa Danielle.
The victory was worth $119,567 and increased Wise Dan’s earnings to $323,047 with a record of 5-0-0 in 10 starts. The Firecracker was the second graded stakes victory for Wise Dan, who won the Grade III Phoenix at Keeneland last fall. That race served as a steppingstone to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs in which he finished sixth.
Longshot Plutonium and 6-1 chance Strike Impact prompted the early pace of :23.81, :47.19 and 1:11.12 with Wise Dan just off their hips in third from the outside. Strike Impact grabbed the lead at the head of the stretch and Wise Dan was in close pursuit four-wide to his outside. With clear sailing and right handed urging by Court, Wise Dan kicked home powerfully to turn back a late run by Baryshnikov, who rallied from the back of the pack to get the place.
“Wow! He ran huge,” said Lopresti, who breezed Wise Dan a half-mile in :48.80 over the Matt Winn Turf Course on Tuesday – a move that convinced him to enter in the Firecracker. “Jon rode him perfectly and that’s what this horse has needed all along. He had him sit back and just make one big run with him. I wanted that kind of a race. I didn’t want him in a speed duel. He needed to learn how to relax and he’s grown up and matured.”
It was the second stakes win of the meet for Lopresti, who also won the $76,445 Kelly’s Landing on June 24 with Here Comes Ben. He has four stakes wins at Churchill Downs overall. Fink combined with Lopresti to win the 2009 Northern Dancer (Grade III) at Churchill Downs with Successful Dan for his only other Churchill Downs stakes win. For the 50-year-old veteran Court, it was his 12th stakes triumph beneath the Twin Spires.
Wise Dan, carrying 115 pounds, returned $30.60, $12 and $7.40 as a 14-1 wagering choice in the field of 10 older horses. Baryshnikov, the 5-2 favorite ridden by Julien Leparoux at 117 pounds, paid $5 and $3.80 and finished a neck in front of Strike Impact, who paid $4.20 to show under Robby Albarado at 117 pounds.
Mystic, Lubash, Plutonium, 119-pound starting high weight General Quarters, Joshua Reynolds, El Caballo and Omniscient completed the order of finish. Mister Marti Gras was scratched.
Leparoux won his eighth Churchill Downs riding title (fourth at the Spring Meet) with 53 victories with Corey Lanerie in second with 47 triumphs. Steve Asmussen held off late charges by Ken McPeek and Eddie Kenneally to win his 10th training title and fifth straight which began with the 2009 Spring Meet crown. Asmussen had 18 wins, one more than McPeek and Kenneally. Richard and Karen Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. was the leading owner with eight wins, two ahead of Jay Em Ess Stable and 17-time champs Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
Racing returns to Churchill Downs on Sunday, Oct. 30 for the 122nd Fall Meet, a 21-day stand that will be highlighted by the return of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships to the track on Nov. 4 and 5.
FIRECRACKER HANDICAP QUOTES
Charlie Lopresti, trainer of Wise Dan (winner): Q. Immediate reaction after the race: “Wow! He ran huge. (Jockey) Jon (Court) rode him perfectly and that’s what this horse has needed all along. He had him sit back and just make one big run with him. I wanted that kind of a race. I didn’t want him in a speed duel. He needed to learn how to relax and he’s grown up and matured.
"Things have been tough on him. He had to come back off long layoffs and run against good horses. At Keeneland, I was a little disappointed in him in the Commonwealth (when he finished fourth) and then we threw him to the wolves in the Alysheba (finished eighth), but he really didn’t run a bad race and only got beat a few lengths and then he just lost by a couple of lengths. I told Mr. (Morton) Fink that he’s getting better every race and some horses it just takes a few races.”
Q. What went into the decision to try him on the turf? “Mr. Fink and I were talking about it and decided that since he was nominated we would go up and work him on the grass just to see what he would do. They had him coming home (in the workout) in 23 (seconds) and everyone was telling me he worked phenomenal and Jon (Court) told us he could have gone around the track again.”
Q. What’s the next spot for Wise Dan? “Turallure (also trained by Lopresti) was going to run in the Fourstardave (at Saratoga) and we might think of running him (Wise Dan) there, but I don’t know…we’ll want to try and keep the two apart. I don’t think there are any mile races up there and I don’t want to run him (Wise Dan) any further. We’ll look at the fall and the big races and the Breeders’ Cup (Mile), but he’s earned a little vacation so we’ll see how he comes out of this and then decide where to go.”
Mort Fink, owner of Wise Dan (winner): “This is one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me. This makes up a little bit for getting disqualified from the (2010) Clark (with Successful Dan). He’s a super horse.”
Jon Court, jockey of Wise Dan (winner): “I didn’t want to go with the leaders. The strategy was to get him to rate and he actually settled and we were able to wait for the punch down the lane. When we hit the top of the stretch, I had a bridle full of horse. I wanted to pull away as fast as I could and beat them to the wire and he did that. As the owner (Fink) said, it’s great when a plan comes together.”
Mike Maker, trainer of Baryshnikov (runner-up): “Not winning the race is the only thing I’d change. We’ll just take it race-by-race from here. Obviously he’s stepping up every time. There’s a big race run here in the fall and it would be nice to get back to that one.”
Jockey Julien Leparoux, rider of Baryshnikov (runner-up): “He ran good. He broke OK, but not as fast as the other ones. But they set a nice pace for us and he relaxed good and put me in the race on the backside, then he made his run and he ran big.
“In my mind I knew there was a lot of pace and the main thing was the start. He broke good, but not as fast. But I was comfortable there. He was nice and relaxed and I got a clean run after that. I was just second-best today.”
Q: Baryshnikov keeps stepping up … “He’s a nice horse and he keeps trying.”
Robby Albarado, jockey on Strike Impact (third): “Ideally, I would have liked to have been in the back a little bit more, but he was just a little keen. Having said that, I don’t think it compromised him because he ran to the wire. They just went awfully fast for him. When I turned for home, I loved where I was sitting, and he exploded, too. The horse was going really good.”
Tom McCarthy, trainer of General Quarters (seventh as the favorite): “He appeared to come back just fine. He (jockey Jamie Theriot) said he was going just fine and he asked him to go at the quarter pole and he just came up empty, that’s all. Maybe he just bounced (from his first race of the year), I don’t know.”