Coming out of a long layoff after emergency colic surgery in May, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan nosed out late-charging Optimizer to score in the Grade 2, $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga on Saturday.
After acting up a little in the gate, the reigning champion broke sharply, and jockey John Velazquez kept him in fourth down the backstretch behind pacesetting Five Iron. The chestnut gelding moved up on the outside rounding the far turn and kicked into high gear at the top of the stretch, having enough in the tank to hold off a determined run from Optimizer.
“He was really tough. He showed he has the heart of a champion,” said Velazquez. “[He carried] 127 pounds coming from a long layoff. When I got to the eighth pole, I didn't think I got it. When I got past the sixteenth pole he was giving me everything he had and the other horse [Optimizer] was coming from the outside. There was a little bit of doubt, he was getting tired.
“[I'm] incredibly proud. It's incredible to have this horse coming back. What happened to him, training and come back and run with 127 pounds, that's incredible.”
The final time for the mile and sixteenth on the turf was 1:39.08, just a shade off the course record.
Wise Dan went off as the 4-5 favorite and paid his backers $3.60, $3.10, and $2.20. Optimizer, who went off at odds of 29-1, returned $14.60 and $8.20 to place. Five Iron was $4.70 to show.
The 7-year-old gelding won a pair of Grade 1 races earlier this spring, including a gutsy victory over Seek Again in the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. This was the Charlie LoPresti trainee's 22nd win in his 30th lifetime start, improving an already impressive resume that includes two Breeders' Cup Mile victories and graded stakes wins on turf, dirt, and synthetic surfaces.
Wise Dan was sent to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on May 16 when he experienced discomfort after regular morning training. After undergoing emergency surgery for colic, the gelding returned to training in early summer.
“We wanted a good race for him to get started with,” LoPresti said after the race. “He's been through a lot. I knew he was training good and I knew he was going to run good. I wouldn't have been disappointed if he was beat today; it would have been something to build on. He showed today why he is the two-time Horse of the Year. To overcome what he's overcome … if you'd have seen him four days after that surgery it [was] like he never even had surgery. That's the amazing thing about him. He'll build from this race, I have to think. God willing, he comes back good. He'll be way tougher next time.”
“We wanted to run here. I came here to run. I came here to train, and I came here to run. I really wanted to do it, and I'm really glad that we did.”
Bred in Kentucky by his owner, Morton Fink, Wise Dan is a son of Wiseman's Ferry, who stands at Dana Point Farm in Pennsylvania, and out of Lisa Danielle (Wolf Power).
Second-place finisher Optimizer was coming off a layoff of his own in the Bernard Baruch, making his first start since a 12th place finish in the Grade 2 Elkhorn at Keeneland on April 25. After that, he moved from the barn of D. Wayne Lukas into the hands of Jose Fernandez.
“I thought we had it, but it didn't quite work out that way,” Fernandez said. “But that's OK. I think he's coming back to form. Hopefully, he'll do better next time. I just took good care of him, that's all. I don't know what other people do; I just know what I do. I've always loved that horse. I'm glad he's back.”
Saturday's effort was Optimizer's first stakes placing since a runner-up performance behind Point of Entry in the Manhattan Handicap last June.
View the full Equibase chart here.
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