Woodward the Wise Choice

Charlie Lopresti, trainer of Wise Dan, is starting to toss the words Horse of the Year around and it’s obvious after his horse’s impressive score in the Fourstardave that he has his sights set on racing’s most esteemed annual award.

Lopresti has the luxury of running Wise Dan just about anywhere he desires, knowing the son of Wiseman’s Ferry can handle any surface – fast and sloppy dirt tracks, yielding and firm grass courses, and Polytrack and Tapeta synthetic surfaces. He is inbred top and bottom to Round Table, which accounts for his ability to handle any kind of surface. He also handles all distances, having won stakes at distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles.

Lopresti also knows that a grade I victory on dirt (he did win the Clark Handicap last year) would go a long way in making Wise Dan a serious Horse of the Year contender.

Well, everything he could ask for is staring him right in the face on Sept. 1. The grade I Woodward Stakes, one of the most prestigious races in the country, is an enticing lure and has history backing it up.

Of the last nine winners of the Woodward, six have gone to be named Horse of the Year that same year, an amazing statistic considering the race designed to determine Horse of the Year, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, has produced only four Horses of the Year in those same nine years and none in the past four years.

In its 58-year history, the Woodward has produced 26 Horses of the Year (that same year). That’s nearly 50% of its winners, another remarkable statistic. In addition, 19 horses who have won the Woodward are in the Hall of Fame.

Another enticement for Wise Dan is the opportunity to lock horns with one of the leading contenders for Horse of the Year, Mucho Macho Man, who like Wise Dan is looking for that all-important grade I victory. A win by either horse would put them right up there with Game On Dude, Ron the Greek, and I’ll Have Another at this point, and the last named has been retired, so each of the top contenders would control his own destiny.

Wise Dan’s versatility no doubt would be strongly considered. As mentioned earlier, he has already won on fast and sloppy dirt tracks, yielding and firm grass courses, and Polytrack and Tapeta, and has handled all distances up to nine furlongs. This year, he’s had only three starts, winning stakes on Polytrack and a yielding turf course and getting beat a head on the dirt in the Stephen Foster, in which he was meandering all over the stretch, allowing Ron the Greek to come through on his inside and nail him on the wire.

We’re now approaching September and Wise Dan needs that grade I dirt victory and needs to beat a horse the caliber of Mucho Macho Man. Here it is, wrapped up in a neat package for him – the right race and the right competition. He also gets a possible crack at To Honor and Serve, one of the top Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile candidates, and last year’s Travers winner Stay Thirsty. So it is apparent the Woodward would move the winner way up in the eyes of the Eclipse voters.

It is difficult to tell which surface is Wise Dan’s best. His most spectacular victories have come over Keeneland’s Polytrack, where he is four-for-four, including victories by 10 1/2 lengths and 15 1/4 lengths; and he sure looked good winning the Fourstardave against a top-class field after being bottled up in traffic down the backstretch. The big question on dirt is how will he handle a track other than Churchill Downs, where he has competed seven times, winning three, two of them in the slop? He certainly hasn’t been as dominant as he has on Polytrack.

That is why, if he is to compete seriously for Horse of the Year, he has to show what he is capable of over a dirt track like Saratoga against top-class horses. If he doesn’t perform as well there as he has on other surfaces, then there is always the option of putting him back on the grass and pointing for the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

But this is his big shot at true stardom, with very little downside. It is a lure that is going to be extremely hard for Lopresti and owner/breeder Morton Fink to resist.

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