With the passing of Morton Fink, I am reprinting a column I wrote the day of Wise Dan's emotional return from surgery in the Bernard Baruch. It culminates with me watching the race with the Finks, two of the most wonderful people you will ever meet.
A Day in the Life of Wise Dan
The dawn is breaking on a beautiful, cool Saratoga morning. This is the day everyone in Charlie LoPresti’s barn has been waiting for. The day begins as any other, but there is a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. This is the day of Wise Dan’s long-awaited return in the Bernard Baruch Handicap following colic surgery only 3 1/2 months earlier.
Although Wise Dan has been a virtual winning machine who inspires confidence in everyone close to him, there is that unknown factor hanging over the barn. Can a horse, even a gifted, tough-as-nails professional like Wise Dan, return to his old form at age 7, less than four months after having surgery and having to concede eight to 13 pounds to his eight opponents?
That is the question on everyone’s mind as the help begin to trickle in, happy at least that the Bernard Baruch is the fifth race on the Aug. 30 card, which also features the grade I Woodward and Forego Stakes.
All photos are by Steve Haskin, please ask before taking.
4:50 – Wise Dan is ready for what he believes to be another routine day as he prepares for his morning activity.
5:05 – Assistant Reeve McGaughey, 25-year-old son of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, puts a blanket on Wise Dan and attaches the lead shank and walks him around the walking ring, as the morning light begins to filter through the trees.
5:27 – Wise Dan has his blanket removed and is given a bath, as he gets a bit fidgety. This should be the time he normally begins to get ready to go out to the track for his daily training. The blanket gets put back on and he has the poultice hosed off his legs.
5:33 – Wise Dan continues to walk around the ring with several other horses. One by one, each one departs, leaving Wise Dan as the only horse on the ring.
5:43 – The first horse heads to the track, with LoPresti accompanying him on the pony. Normally Dan would be with him. But today is not any normal day.
5:46 – Dan’s water bucket is filled as he continues to walk. But each time, he stops at the same spot to watch the activity building on the track, as well as several of LoPresti’s other horses grazing behind the barn. If one could interpret a horse’s thoughts, Dan would be wondering why he’s not among them and why his morning has been so mundane. If he could read the sign on his stall door that says “Horse in Today,” he would have his answer. “He knows the routine,” McGaughey says. “I might let him eat some grass for a while.”
5:56 – Dan has his ankles washed. McGaughey is confident that Dan is ready to perform at his best, but, again, there is that little bit of uncertainty and anxiety in the air. “He’s doing really well,” McGaughey said. “We’ve got to get started somewhere. Normally he goes out about 5:30, so he knows something is different. At some point, he’ll probably get back in his stall and go to sleep.”
6:00-6:07 – Dan is taken out behind the barn by McGaughey and allowed to graze for a few minutes. A thin layer of fog has settled on the track, providing a typical Saratoga picture and backdrop.
Wise Dan gets to pick a little grass
6:08 – Dan is put back in his stall and proceeds to start picking at his hayrack. LoPresti walks by and briefly looks in on the horse. He knows everything that could be done has been done. “I’m feeling good,” he says. “Everything is good.”
The sign says it all
Dan spent a good part of the morning looking out his window
One thing that is learned watching the horse is that Dan is a dunker. He grabs a mouthful of hay off the rack and then dunks it in his water bucket before eating it, the way a person will soften his biscotti by dunking it in his coffee.
6:16 – With post for the Bernard Baruch scheduled for about 3:15, McGaughey says they have to be in the holding barn 40 minutes before post. It is less than a five-minute walk from LoPresti’s barn to the holding barn, so the scheduled departure time is approximately 2:30.
6:36 – McGaughey puts front protective wraps on Dan. He continues to be amazed at the old boy’s class and intelligence. “He’s different from the rest of them,” he says. “He does things -- just little things -- that other horses don’t do. He’s got so much class. For me, he’s going to be the measuring stick for all horses in the future. Everyone is excited to finally get him back to the races. We’re obviously nervous, but we couldn’t ask him to be doing any better.”
McGaughey feels Dan hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves. “I think he’s kind of under-appreciated for what he’s done,” he says. “I can appreciate other people’s arguments, but I feel that after his career is over, people will begin to appreciate him.”
All good horses know how to take care of themselves and conserve their energy on race days, and Dan is no exception. “He’ll sleep on and off,” McGaughey says. “Two years ago on Woodbine Mile day, he hung his head out the stall door and just rested it on the crossbar. Last year on the day of the Fourstardave, when the blacksmith came he had to check Dan’s shoes while he was lying down.
7:20 – Dan is brought outside as blacksmith Bristin Green files his shoes with a few last-minute touches. “We did him a couple of weeks ago, so I’m just tightening them up today to make sure everything is good going into the race,” Green says. “We just want to get over this hump and hope he comes back good and continues to have a safe recovery. He’s such a beautiful horse to work with; an absolute class act.”
Dan gets some minor shoe work done as LoPresti looks on
7:30 – Dan is brought back in his stall and continues to pick at his hay rack, while occasionally going to his back window and staring at all the activity on the track. McGaughey says after the state veterinarian comes by to inspect him, they’ll feed him and leave him alone the rest of the morning.
7:45 – Equine therapist Dianne Volz, who works on Wise Dan, shows up to work on another of LoPresti’s horses. Volz, who has worked on a number of champions and classic winners over the years, probably knows more about horses from a mental and physical aspect than most people close to them on a daily basis, and is enamored with Wise Dan. “He is so grounded and alright with himself,” she says. “Nothing rattles him. He’s so much fun to be around. He’s just a cool horse and the best communicator. It’s either yes or no with him; there’s no gray area. ‘No, I don’t want that, thank you.’ ‘OK, no problem, you’re the man. You get what you want.’
“I take my chew toy and hook it to the tie chain, and he’ll drop his head down and will look like a dog on a long leash. He’s extremely intelligent. When they first arrived here, the horses on either side of him were kicking and screaming and running around, because there was something going on, and he just stood there looking out the window and never turned a hair.
8:45 – The state vet shows up to inspect Dan, as the morning begins to wind down. An occasional visitor stops by to wish LoPresti good luck.
10:00 – LoPresti finally has a chance to sit down for a few minutes outside his office. “I’m hungry,” he says as he spots the food truck at the end of the barn. Not exactly interested in starting his day with the “breakfast of champions,” he is content with a package of Oreo cookies and a Mountain Dew.
LoPresti’s mind is preoccupied not only with Wise Dan, but his two other horses he’s running today, including Set the Sail in the third race, two races before Dan’s. As for Dan, LoPresti knows he has the horse ready, and that has him confident he will give his all as usual. “I’m doing alright,” he says. “Whatever happens happens. It’s up to him now. We’ve done all we can.”
10:10 – Dan is fed his breakfast, and about 10 minutes later he walks to the back of his stall and drops his head, his eyes beginning to droop.
Time to rest up for the big race
10:40 – Lopresti gets in his truck and heads out to get ready.
10:55 – The Lasix vet arrives and goes in Dan’s stall to give him his Lasix shot. After she leaves, McGaughey grabs the chain and hooks Dan to the back wall. Snacking time is over. Dan just stares out his window the rest of the morning. Nothing now but the waiting.
2:07 – Dan’s exercise rider, Damien Rock, dressed in a burgundy shirt, is ready to help lead Dan to the holding barn. But first there is the third race to be run. He heads to the backstretch rail to root home Set the Sail. Expecting to see the horse on the lead, he is content to see him in striking position in second. Coming to the wire, Set the Sail is narrowly in front, but Rock can’t tell if he won. He thinks he did, and that’s enough to keep his spirits high. As it turned out, Set the Sail, at 8-1, was beaten a nose by the even-money favorite Mshawish, but was placed first on a disqualification, getting the day off on a good note.
Rock’s attention now turns solely on Wise Dan, as the time nears to bring him to the holding barn. He can’t believe the horse has come this far in such a short period of time. “I’m just so happy he’s here and healthy and ready to race,” he says. “I think back to the day when he was having surgery. For him to go through that and be here in a little over three months is pretty amazing. You have a horse who never has any soundness issues and you think he’s so bullet proof and so sound, but you never know. It makes you realize that every day they’re around is a blessing.”
2:28 – Finally, the time has come. Dan is led from his barn, accompanied by Rock, Reeve McGaughey, and Kelly Wheeler, for the short walk to the holding barn, arriving at 2:31.
Time to head to the holding barn
2:40 – Dan is taken outside to be hosed off, acting a bit fidgety, tossing his head around, but it’s almost time for the Baruch horses to leave. “If you’re gonna hose him, do it quickly,” shouts a holding barn attendant.
2:42 – It’s time for the long walk to the paddock. As Dan walks past the barns, backstretch people are lined up to take his photo. He walks along the Union Ave. gate toward the horse path and the gauntlet of people lined up on both sides, most with cameras and cell phones aimed at Dan. Children sit on their father’s shoulders to get a glimpse of the two-time Horse of the Year.
Dan is brought outside the holding barn
Dan gets a warm round of applause as he appears. From the crowd comes, “Pretty horse”…”Come on Dan”…”Go get ‘em, Danny Boy”…”Boy, look how big he is.”
The fans line up to see the champ
2:51 – Dan goes directly to his saddling stall and is saddled by LoPresti, but again is fidgety, apparently not happy with the lip chain.
Reeve McGaughey gives Dan a reassuring pat on the head
After the horses leave the paddock, LoPresti and owners Morton and Elaine Fink head to the clubhouse and find a spot in front of the large flat screen monitor to watch the race. Fink, at age 84, is already getting emotional, just having Dan return to the races so soon after his ordeal. “If it wasn’t for this horse I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” he says. “He’s added 10 years to my life. At my age, you never know.”
A jubilant Morton and Elaine Fink head to the winner's circle
A few minutes later, the horses are loaded, but Dan, uncharacteristically, gets wound up in the gate and rears, unseating jockey John Velazquez. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe what happened,” Elaine says. “I thought it was somebody else who reared up. I didn’t realize it was him.” Velazquez remounts, as Dan has now settled down and is standing fine.
3:19 – And they’re off! Dan breaks beautifully and as usual settles into a good position in fourth, about a half-dozen lengths behind the pacesetting Five Iron. LoPresti stares emotionless at the screen, as do the Finks, waiting for the explosion they’ve seen so many times before. Will it be there this time? When Velazquez asks Dan for his run on the far turn, he delivers the answer and begins closing in on Five Iron and the Shadwell Stable colt Sayaad. He still has a couple of lengths to make up, but quickly gets that big powerful stride in gear, taking over the lead inside the eighth pole.
“Come on, boy,” Fink shouts.
Wise Dan is in front, but here comes the talented, but enigmatic Optimizer, who had recently been taken from Wayne Lukas and turned over Calumet’s farm trainer Jose Fernandez. Optimizer, in receipt of 11 pounds, begins closing in on Dan, who digs in and drops his head and neck, reaching out gallantly for the wire. It is close, but Dan prevails by a long nose. With a final sixteenth is :05 4/5, he covers the mile and a sixteenth in a blazing 1:39 flat, a fifth of a second off the course record held by Fourstardave in 1991.
Elaine Fink lets out a scream. Morton is overcome with emotion. “Unbelievable! What he went through,” he shouts. LoPresti quickly dashes off to the track, as the Finks slowly make their way out, receiving congratulations along the way.
LoPresti stands on the track waiting for his horse, his hands on his hips. He looks up, inhales, and lets out a deep breath, as if releasing all the anxiety that had built up the days leading up to the race and those earlier days deciding where to run him first time back. Once the Finks arrive, LoPresti asks Morton, “Do you want to walk him in?”
“No, I’m too unsteady,” he replies.
As Wise Dan enters the winner’s circle, the crowd lets out with a round of applause. The cheering increases almost as a wave as Wise Dan heads back along the rail up the stretch to the receiving barn.
Velazquez finishes up with his interviews and all he says as he leaves the winner’s circle and returns to the jocks room is, “Heart of a champion. That’s what he showed today – 127 pounds.”
As for Elaine, she is still overcome with emotion. “I’m still shaking,” she says.
Morton is asked if he’s calmed down yet. “No, I don’t want to calm down,” he says.
“If he had lost and had tried, we would have been happy. What he did in the gate was the last thing I wanted to see. When they do that in the gate, that’s one of the biggest jinxes in racing.”
The Finks were flying right back to Chicago for Morton’s dialysis treatment; another thing he says has kept him going and added years to his life.
One day, Wise Dan will join his brother Successful Dan at LoPresti’s farm. But for now, there was one thought and only one thought. The Champ is back.
Even Dan seems to be excited over his victory
The fans cheer Dan as he heads back home