By J.J. Hysell
Wise Dan, the strapping chestnut reigning Horse of the Year, is one of the most accomplished horses currently in training.
He’s won eight straight races and 11 of his last 12, hops from track to track with ease and trains like an equine example of perfection. Throw whatever you want at him – not humans nor nature can halt his force, as shown in the Firecracker at Churchill Downs in June. He forged his way out of a traffic trap, ran at full speed with a hedge in his hindquarters, stumbled and still found his way home first on the soggy, mushy turf.
“Wise Dan is a pleasure,” trainer Charlie LoPresti said. “Wise Dan is a very, very sound horse. He’s very easy to train. He’s an overachiever. You don’t have to breeze him very often. You don’t have to have him on a set schedule, because the way he gallops and trains in the morning, he puts so much into it that he keeps himself fit.”
In fact, LoPresti – not one to make headlines boasting about the exploits of his runners – doesn’t hold back when it comes to his stable star.
“Wise Dan’s so brilliant – and I don’t mean to brag about him and I don’t want to sound too cocky – but I don’t see many horses beating him right now the way he is.”
While Wise Dan garners the spotlight with ease, his older half-brother from the same barn can’t seem to catch a break. Successful Dan’s racing legend is a stark contrast to that of his sibling, littered with injuries, a disqualification in one of his most monumental races and just plain bad luck.
Suspensory injuries have thwarted Successful Dan’s momentum three times in his career. After winning the Fayette at Keeneland in his 4-year-old season, he got his chance on the big stage in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. The day before the Clark, Wise Dan was a footnote when he won an allowance race at Churchill Downs. Successful Dan was the headliner this day; bettors made him the favorite.
The race was a melee of shifting and bumping and shuffling, and in the end, although Successful Dan and jockey Julien Leparoux crossed the wire first, they would not be awarded the trophy. Giant Oak was named the winner after stewards declared interference by Successful Dan. “It was a bad call,” LoPresti said after the race.
One year later, Wise Dan took that trophy that Successful Dan couldn’t, and Successful Dan wouldn’t race again until April of 2012 because of injury.
Just when it seemed “the other Dan” had drifted off the racing radar, his second wind at the age of six blew a message of vitality. He won his first race off the 16-month layoff, but that wasn’t the time to serve notice.
That would come in the Grade 2 Alysheba on Kentucky Oaks Day, in front of a multitude of cameras, with the racing world’s eyes fixated – just like little brother, who twelve days earlier had set a track record at Keeneland in the Ben Ali Stakes. Successful Dan ran the greatest race of his career yet, powering past future Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, setting a track record of his own and reclaiming his status in the division.
“This is one of the best horses I’ve ridden so far in my career,” Leparoux exclaimed after the race.
Still, the Grade 1 prize eluded him. Wise Dan has six.
What better spot to try than the Graveyard of Champions as a 7-year-old. In the Whitney at Saratoga, Successful Dan would meet up with familiar foes Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, rival Ron the Greek and newcomer Cross Traffic. This time, however, his trouble appeared before the race.
As the field headed to the track, Successful Dan suddenly balked at something. He tossed his head, reared and flipped on his side, losing Leparoux. He quickly bounced back up and, after a pre-race warm-up, it was determined he was fine to race.
The incident surprised LoPresti. The elder Dan was never a problem child; just unlucky.
“He has never, ever done that,” he said. “I think I had him pretty sharp for that race. I don’t really know why he did it.”
Whether the wind was knocked out of him or he just needed to get into rhythm, Successful Dan languished in the back of the field until the stretch run. Csaba retreated. Fort Larned backed up. Running six wide with his head slightly cocked toward the grandstand, older brother looked like he just might do it. He got a little too close to Mucho Macho Man and had to check, interrupting his momentum. There was only Cross Traffic to catch.
Successful Dan came up short, losing by three-quarters of a length.
“Every time that he has come into his own and really started to show the kind of horse he is, there’s always something that goes wrong with him,” LoPresti said. “We had him really good the year they took his number down in the Clark. It just seems like everything’s gone against him. We had him really good for this race in the Whitney, and then I was kind of kidding my nephew when he walked through the paddock. I said, ‘Well, we finally got him there,’ because we didn’t get him there last year. Then I walked away and I went for the grandstand, looked up and there that (incident) happened to him. So it just seems like he’s kind of a hard luck horse.”
Successful Dan will try again for a Grade 1 honor in Saturday’s Woodward at Saratoga. Hardship hasn’t hindered his resolve.
“I just think that this particular horse, we’ve been through so much with him, ” LoPresti said. “I would like for everybody to see that he is as good a horse as I’ve said all along. It would mean a great deal for me to see this horse win (the Woodward). He has a special place in all our hearts.”