Great Expectations for Dan and Delta

Wise Dan and Royal Delta are two of racing biggest stars. Wise Dan already has a Horse of the Year trophy and more, and Royal Delta has brought home a pair of Eclipse Awards herself. Both can be considered great horses. But will both be mentioned among the truly greats; the superstars of the Turf? Will they be listed in the next edition of Blood-Horse’s top 100 horses of all time (if there was one)? At this point in their careers, probably not.

Both have made it to the steps of the pantheon. But there is a big difference between sitting on the steps and actually being allowed to pass through the hallowed gates.

Is it necessary to enter in the grand scheme of things or from a monetary standpoint? Once again, probably not. It just depends on where their owners and trainers want their names etched for posterity. Are the connections of Royal Delta content to have a tremendous filly with a monster bankroll or do they aspire to have her name mentioned with the all-time greats? Are the connections of Wise Dan content to have arguably the greatest American mile turf horse in history or do they aspire to have his name mentioned with geldings such as Kelso, Forego, John Henry, Armed, and Exterminator?

Both horses are only one or two races away from achieving such an exalted place in history. But they must be the right races. In Royal Delta’s case, she has to beat the boys or at least be right there against the best. In Wise Dan’s case, he has to win a major race on dirt, preferably the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His Clark Handicap score two years ago won’t do it.

At this point, both horses have pretty much taken the same path they did last year without attempting to conquer new worlds and striving for true greatness. We already know Royal Delta can probably whip any filly in the country on her best day. And we know Wise Dan feasts on mile turf horses and is virtually unbeatable at that distance on the grass. Now that that has been established, it is time for them to get up off those steps and start pounding on the gates. The bottom line is, there is nothing to lose, especially for Wise Dan, who as a gelding can always return to what he does best if it doesn’t work out. But the rewards, if successful, are too bountiful to measure.

Many consider John Henry the greatest grass horse ever in America. But he still managed to win two Santa Anita Handicaps, the first horse to do so, and a Jockey Club Gold Cup. Forego became the only horse in history to win the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and be named champion sprinter the same year. Kelso never stopped trying to win the Washington D.C. International and finally accomplished it at age 7, sewing up his fifth consecutive Horse of the Year title and setting a new American record for 1 1/2 miles.

These horses stepped out of the proverbial box, and history has rewarded them because of it. The fact is, no one ever mentions their defeats, and there were many. It’s all about the victories.

All over the world, fillies have become beloved national heroes, but only after running against and defeating the boys in major stakes, in many cases more than once. A victory in a classic or the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or a Breeders’ Cup Classic, Turf or Mile or the Japan Cup or Melbourne Cup can elevate a filly to superstardom.

We currently are witnessing the era of the filly. In the past eight years, the racing world has seen a large number of femme fatales, such as Rags to Riches, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Goldikova, Black Caviar, Zarkava, Makybe Diva, Vodka, Danedream, Buena Vista, Gentildonna, and Havre de Grace among others. This list has become so extensive there simply is no room for fillies who don’t beat the boys. Royal Delta’s connections at least tried it twice; they just picked the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time. The right race is still to be run.

During the past eight years, these amazing Amazons have conquered the boys in the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (three times), Breeders’ Cup Mile (three times), Melbourne Cup (three times), Japan Cup (three times), Woodward Stakes (twice), King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Dubai Sheema Classic, and Haskell Invitational, not to mention a slew of other major stakes and a United Arab Emirates Derby victory by Khawlah and a Queens Plate score by Inglorious. And Larry Jones in another year might very well have added the Kentucky Derby with the ill-fated Eight Belles, who finished second to superstar Big Brown in the Run for the Roses.

Royal Delta would seem a natural to be added to this exclusive list of champion fillies, but her only two attempts against the boys came in the Dubai World Cup, run over the Tapeta surface. She failed badly on both occasions. But both defeats have been forgiven and forgotten. It should be obvious by now that she does not handle the Tapeta surface, especially having to travel halfway around the world to run over it.

With her tour-de-force in the recent Delaware Handicap, Royal Delta is pretty much going through the motions. Yes, winning three straight Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classics would be unprecedented. And if the connections are content with that, so be it. No one can blame them. It would be a great feat. But, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, she’ll still have those two Dubai matzo balls hanging over her head, as well as the ‘what ifs.’

But those gates are still right there waiting for her.

For Wise Dan, there is more pressure on him to rip off his Raccoon coat and cap and try to become the next Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler (for all those non Honeymooners’ fans who have no idea what that means, trust me, it’s a great line).

Like with Royal Delta, if the gelding’s connections are merely content to have him keep winning and earning money, by all means remain on the straight and narrow path on which you are currently traveling.

But this magnificent horse is so immensely talented and has so much more to offer, and if they want to secure his deserved place in history, then at least one time reach for the stars when the whole world is watching. Even if he’s not as good on dirt as he is on grass, so what? No one will hold it against him if he gets beat, and there is a full year of grass races for him in 2014. But just going by his Clark victory and his narrow defeat in the Stephen Foster against a very good horse in Ron the Greek, he’s still capable of achieving great things on dirt and should love the Santa Anita surface.

Yes, they also have his big brother, Successful Dan, also a gifted horse, whose career has been compromised by injuries. But even if Successful Dan should win the Whitney or another major dirt race this fall, that shouldn’t deter them from giving Wise Dan his chance at immortality come Breeders’ Cup time. They have already won Horse of the Year with him and they’ve already won a Breeders’ Cup race. That gives them the luxury to now have some fun with him and treat the fans to something historic. Morton Fink, who has been one of the classiest owners in racing for the past four decades, will be the first to tell you that horses like this, or even close to this, rarely come along in one’s lifetime. And at age 83 he’s saved the best for last and has a chance to leave a lasting legacy to the sport, just as Sam Rubin, Allaire duPont, and Martha Gerry did.

There is also Horse of the Year to consider. Of all the female Horses of the Year – Busher, Twilight Tear, All Along, Lady’s Secret, Azeri, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Havre de Grace, only Azeri did not defeat colts. And she was awarded Horse of the Year mainly because there was no one else to give it to thanks in good part to megabombs Sarava and Volponi, who did a number on the most likely contenders in the Belmont and Breeders’ Cup Classic, respectively. But she was accorded more respect for her solid 5th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic behind Ghostzapper two years later. And finishing fourth in the Classic didn’t prevent Havre de Grace from being named Horse of the Year following her victory in the Woodward.

Last year, Game On Dude’s self destruction in the BC Classic, I’ll Have Another’s injury and premature retirement, and Point of Entry’s unlucky defeat in the BC Turf all aided Wise Dan when the voting came around.

This year, a victory over what promises to be a brilliant group of horses for the Classic would send Wise Dan’s star into orbit and put him on a different plateau, right up there with the all-time greats.

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