The reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, will be the headline attraction of this weekend's racing action when he starts in the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga, a race named for a revered chestnut gelding who made 100 starts in his career and won a race at Saratoga eight years in a row.
Photo: Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer
There have been some complaints this year from racing fans and members of the media regarding Wise Dan's conservative campaign. Some people want to see him compete in top-class dirt races. Others are just fine with him staying on grass, but would rather see him compete in the Arlington Million against an international field at our classic distance. And still others want to see him travel to grand international events as Animal Kingdom did earlier in the year.
When a Hall-of-Fame-caliber racehorse remains in good health and at peak form, it just isn't sexy for him to spend the summer competing in Grade 2 stakes races like the Firecracker and Fourstardave.
What makes Wise Dan's 2013 campaign seem all the more unadventurous is the fact that he is a gelding. A disappointing performance will never "devalue" Wise Dan because he obviously has no value as a stallion prospect. Furthermore, as a gelding, he has a built-in advantage, in theory, that should make staying sound and campaigning easier for him than it would have been had he never been gelded.
The legendary Walter Vosburgh, one of the most respected officials in the history of the sport, has made the strongest endorsement for the benefit of gelding a horse. It is lengthy, but trainers (at least the ones I've asked to read it) tend to agree with it. So here it is, in part:
"The greatest benefit from gelding is that it saves the forelegs. Horses usually break down in the forelegs. With few exceptions, all of our best campaigners have been geldings and that is a fact that is capable of partial explanation: Geldings have the lightest possible necks; their shoulders and, indeed, their whole forehand is marked by a leanness or lightness compared with that of an entire horse. Take two yearlings, one gelded, the other left entire. At two years old, the entire one will begin to fill in the neck and shoulders, then later, a crest will gradually appear. The whole forehand will fill and become comparatively 'loaded.' The gelding, on the contrary, the neck, shoulders, and forehand seem to have been arrested in development, but not so the back, quarters, and gaskins.
The forelegs of the gelding are in consequence relieved of perhaps fifty pounds of superfluous weight. It is the forelegs which have to bear the greatest shock from the propulsion of the horses' body in the gallop. Hence, it is plausible that the gelding owes his durability and campaigning qualities to the relief castration affords him from carrying a weight in his forehand, as the absence of the weight relieves the concussion which the forelegs suffer in the gallop. It is this that ruins so many entire colts early in life.
Not that castration itself improves a horse's speed -- that would be absurd -- but it produces conditions favorable to his stamina and his capacity to endure long years of campaigning and retain his form. And this because it prevents his body from becoming too heavy for his legs -- 'overtopped,' as horsemen say."
Look, there was a time in racing history when the pressure to campaign top horses in the most challenging fashion was great. Those days are long gone. Let us just say that Morton Fink is a conservative owner, and Charles LoPresti is a very good and judicious trainer. They are obviously doing what they believe is in the best interest of their horse. And the latest NTRA poll has Wise Dan rated as the top thoroughbred in North America. He received 33 out of 47 first-place votes. Fellow six-year-old gelding Game On Dude is rated second. He received 13 first-place votes.
Game On Dude has campaigned more in the mold of a stereotypical gelding that is an elite race horse. His trainer, Bob Baffert, is hard on horses in morning workouts, but Game On Dude has competed in a major Derby prep (Florida Derby), he's competed in a three-year-old classic race (Belmont Stakes), and he's competed in two Breeders' Cup Classics and a Dubai World Cup...in addition to two Big Caps, three Hollywood Gold Cups, and soon to be three Pacific Classics.
Like Wise Dan, Game On Dude was a nice three-year-old and a very good four-year-old, before finding his best form at age five and admirably holding that great form together for two seasons. While their development pattern is quite similar, Game On Dude has made all of the "mystique" races that a top gelding based in Southern California is expected to make. Moreover, we know with great clarity what kind of horse Game On Dude is. For that, let's tip our cap to Bob Baffert.
In the case of Wise Dan, all we know with certainty is that he's a sensationally good horse. Sure, it's quite possible that he's really at his best on turf, and at distances ranging from a mile to nine furlongs. However, a pretty compelling case can be made to the contrary.
When is the last time Wise Dan delivered a letdown performance? It was in the 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, which is, as the name indicates, a one-mile turf race. He finished a non-threatening fourth. Since that race, Wise Dan has ten wins and one second over his next eleven starts, including a lopsided and stylish Grade 1 win in the Clark Handicap with a 120 TimeformUS speed figure over the dirt.
The only defeat over that eleven-race stretch came in the Stephen Foster Handicap, where he was a heroic second, beaten only a head for the win.
In that Foster defeat, Wise Dan bumped repeatedly with Fort Larned through the opening furlong, and both found themselves pressing a pace that received an absolutely gigantic pace figure from TimeformUS. Even though the two of them suffered through the same trip, the results were very much different. Fort Larned backed through the pack and finished dead last, beaten a dozen lengths. Wise Dan, carrying six pounds more than Fort Larned, overcame the same miserable circumstances and finished second, beaten just a head by deep-closing Ron The Greek, who took advantage of the Foster pace meltdown.
Any notion that Fort Larned's dreadful last-place performance in the Foster was due to anything other than his rough trip was quickly dispelled. Just two weeks after his Foster debacle, Fort Larned returned to win the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap by three lengths over Successful Dan, and in his following start, he won the Whitney Handicap over Ron The Greek.
And not only has Wise Dan been excellent on dirt and turf, his career-top speed figure of 127 came on a synthetic surface, when he won the Ben Ali by ten and a half lengths.
In plain English, Wise Dan has run eleven brilliant races in a row. He's run them over dirt, turf, and synthetic. I side with anyone who would like to see such a sensationally versatile and talented performer competing in races with more mystique to them.
I'm not suggesting that the Fourstardave will be a cakewalk for Wise Dan, or a boring race for fans. He does have to carry 129 pounds and concede double-digit weight spreads to each horse. Devotees of weight adjustments will tell you that Wise Dan is conceding three to four lengths' worth of weight to each of his challengers in the Fourstardave, and a relative low percentage of turf races are won by margins of victory that wide. Still, every single one of Wise Dan's last seven TimeformUS speed figures are 119 or higher, and no one else in this field has run that fast in his most recent start.
We know who Wise Dan is. Wise Dan is a brilliantly talented and versatile gelding who received North American racing's highest honor in 2012, Horse of the Year. What we don't know is how great he could be if his connections weren't so fixated on capturing another Breeders' Cup Mile. We've already seen four other horses win multiple Breeders' Cup Miles.
To quote Lao Tzu: "When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."