Here we go again. I had absolutely zero plans on writing or even thinking about Wise Dan in the heat of the Derby trail. Who needs all the retorts that accompany it? I don’t consider myself a glutton for punishment. But then I was watching American Idol and another hair-brained analogy for a column popped into my head. It’s basically the same old same old, but with a slightly different face put on it.
The number one sign that you’re getting old is watching American Idol and not knowing a single song or a single artist, and not hearing a single tune in any of the songs.
I know, what could that mundane thought possibly have to do with Wise Dan?
I only watch American Idol (on DVR, of course, so I can fast forward through all the garbage time) in the hope of hearing a song I’m familiar with and witnessing that one knockout performance that gives me goosebumps and separates great singers from superstars. Aha, now it’s starting to come into focus, right?
I hear great voices and see great stage presence in all these singers, who have gone through a lot to get here. But now I want those goosebumps; I want to move and be moved. Yes, I’m getting old. I miss Phil Spector’s wall of noise that rocks me out of my seat. I miss the melodic, hypnotic voice of Sam Cooke, or Darlene Love wailing out a tune, or the finger-snapping sound and profound real-life lyrics of the Statler Brothers, or Delbert McClinton crying out the blues.
For some strange reason, when I was finished watching American Idol this week and saw the potential of these great singers, wanting so badly to hear a superstar in the making, I couldn’t help think of, yes, Wise Dan, as he prepares for Act III, scene I. Acts I and II are over and done, and they have won Wise Dan a mind-boggling six Eclipse Awards and the admiration of everyone who loves watching perfection. But now, it’s a new year and we start all over again.
Look, we are all well aware by now, and I’ve written this several times, that Wise Dan is unbeatable going a mile on the grass, and thanks to a Wise Dan/all/all trifecta in last year’s BC Mile, I was able to actually win money on the Breeders’ Cup.
And as we head into the new year, I once again have visions of this all-time great turf miler evolving into one of the all-time greats, period.
Yes, I’m well aware all the Wise Dan idolaters are going to strike back and say leave well enough alone, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it; stop picking on the horse and his connections. But, the truth is, I am one of Wise Dan’s biggest fans and knew he was the lock of the year in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile, despite his loss on that wet Polytrack surface at Keeneland. At a mile on the grass, he is the greatest I’ve ever seen, and that includes Lure. Although perhaps not as brilliant as the Claiborne rocket, he is more machine like. I have maintained on numerous occasions that he is a winning machine and is truly a great horse.
But like I feel about the great singers on American Idol, I can’t help but want to see him take it one more step. Because, you see, that one step is the one leading through the gates of the pantheon, where the immortals of the Turf dwell. I’m not saying Wise Dan would win the Met Mile or the Whitney or the Breeders’ Cup Classic. All I’m saying is that he deserves the chance to join those great geldings, such as Kelso, Forego, and John Henry, in that hallowed chamber reserved only for the true legends of the sport; the ones who will be talked about generations from now.
No one remembers Forego’s defeats, or Kelso’s, or John Henry’s. And the ones that are memorable are not held against them. Do you think anyone held it against Forego when, at age 7, he was beaten a neck in the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap carrying 138 pounds or that he finished second in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap under 137 pounds, giving the winners of those races a staggering 24 and 25 pounds? It’s all about the victories and reaching beyond their limits to strive for true greatness. And if Wise Dan should lose on the dirt, no one will hold it against him. People will admire the sportsmanship (see Ed Stanco) of running a horse where he is not a certainty to win. Even perfection can get boring if it becomes repetitive and unadventurous.
I truly believe Zenyatta became more beloved, and her fan base grew even larger, after her lone, courageous defeat.
I don’t say all this because what trainer Charlie LoPresti and owner Morton Fink are doing is wrong. There is no wrong when all you do is win. But there is more to racing a great horse than just doing what’s not wrong, especially when you don’t know for sure that the alternative is wrong in the first place.
If Wise Dan runs in the Met Mile or the Breeders’ Cup Classic or even the Whitney (three different distances, take your pick) and gets beat, so what? If he shows limitations you can always go back to mile grass races and try to make it three BC Mile wins and nine Eclipse awards. It’s not as if we are talking about a horse who is unproven on the dirt. Heck, he’s a grade I winner on dirt and was beaten in a photo by a very good horse in the grade I Stephen Foster Handicap. When he won the grade I Clark Handicap, his time for the 1 1/8 miles was the fastest in the last six runnings of the race.
And it’s not as if Wise Dan’s trainer Charlie LoPresti has not publicly expressed his desire to run on the dirt again. He was seriously considering the Whitney last year. LoPresti claims it was owner Morton Fink who decided to stay on the grass, and Fink has stated it was LoPresti’s decision. All that is immaterial now. We’re starting fresh with an entire year ahead of us. But at age 7, time is running out to start pushing the envelope, as they say.
Yes, I’m well aware that I am regurgitating the same old stuff, and I have no business suggesting that Wise Dan’s connections give the horse a chance to enter the pantheon of immortals. But I have witnessed the true greats, and the inhabitants of that sacred place have become few and far between compared to the past. Wise Dan at least deserves the chance to join them. Some people may feel he has entered already, but, trust me, the passing of the years will show that is not the case. This is not Europe or Australia, where the Frankels and Black Caviars are revered; where greatness comes in all forms. This is America, where the classics, the classic distances, and the dirt reign supreme; where grass milers and sprinters will always be segregated and discriminated against in the history books (How many of those specialists were among the Blood-Horse’s Top 100 horses of all time)?
Is the grass safer than the dirt? Most will say yes. And if that is the reason to remain on the grass, for fear of injury, then one cannot argue with that decision. But if the horse is completely sound, that shouldn’t influence their decision, just as it doesn’t all the other trainers who race on dirt.
I keep thinking of the closing line of the play “Sunday in the Park with George,” about the artist George Seurat, who says, “White: a blank page or canvas. His favorite – so many possibilities."
Those possibilities are still there. We have a blank canvas once again.
All it takes to complete a masterpiece are bold strokes by the artist, a God-given talent, and some imagination.
All it takes from an American Idol contestant to achieve true greatness is to explore new depths within his or her soul.
All it takes from Wise Dan is to expand the horizons of what is already a great painting or a great song and turn them into a master work of art.