Heavy downpour, jockey tactics prove no match for Horse of the Year
By J.J. Hysell
If the reigning Horse of the Year was being asked to prove his worthiness for the title Saturday night, he undoubtedly passed the test.
After several deluges associated with thunderstorms that moved through the area soaked the turf course to yielding, trainer Charlie LoPresti considered pulling his 6-year-old gelding from the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap.
LoPresti was already concerned about the amount of weight Wise Dan was conceding to his competitors; carrying a high weight of 128 pounds, his foes – dwindled to four after scratches – were toting as much as 13 pounds less.
“I was that close to scratching,” LoPresti said. “If we would’ve had one more big downpour like we had earlier, I was going to take him out of there.”
The most daunting curveball thrown at the veteran was race strategy, as his four rivals sealed him in by the rail in a tactical move that could only be overcome by a veteran jockey like John Velazquez.
Boxed in along the inside path, Wise Dan had just one option: to ride the hedge and counterpunch Seruni and Lea in the stretch. Seruni and jockey Corey Lanerie played it close – the two bumped and Wise Dan brushed the hedge. Once clear, Lea and Brian Hernandez made a sharp run at him, but couldn’t reach the classy favorite, who bobbled over the soggy ground just before reaching the wire.
“I had to work my way out,” Velazquez said. “If you watch the head-on, he brushes up against the bushes and he even jumped at the eighth-pole.
“The track was so loose, so wet and slippery.”
Wise Dan is the first two-time winner of the Firecracker – although this version was a stark contrast from the rather workmanlike 2 3/4-length win over a firm course in 2011.
“They rode against him,” LoPresti said. “They rode to beat him.”
“Corey’s laying on him down on the hedge. He’s got him pinned and I’m thinking, ‘Just let him through, you’re not going to beat him anyway.’ Then he bounced off the hedge a little bit. It was kind of ugly. Just hoping he comes back good. That was my biggest fear about a race like this, was to put it all on the line and have a hard race, and knock him out down the road, carrying this much weight and how this turf course turned out the way it did.
“Everything went against us tonight. It worked out.”