Wise Dan Returns Saturday at Saratoga

Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan is set to race for the first time in nearly four months in Saturday's Grade 2, $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga. The last thing on trainer Charlie LoPresti's mind, he says, is a third straight Horse of the Year title.

A seven-year-old Morton Fink homebred, Wise Dan has earned six Eclipse Awards -- voted champion older male, champion turf male and Horse of the Year in 2012 and 2013 -- while racking up 10 Grade 1 victories.

Forego was the last horse to win three straight Horse of the Year titles, from 1974-76.

"People keep talking to me about Horse of the Year," LoPresti said. "I don't know how many people have said, 'You need to do this,' or 'You need to do that' to get Horse of the Year.

"I'm not even thinking about that right now. I'm thinking how lucky we are to get him back to the races, have him out here breezing, getting the chance to get him back in a race, and then we'll go from there. I'm just glad that he's back in training and has a chance to run. Horse of the Year is the furthest thing from my mind right now."
Wise Dan has won 21 of 29 career races with two seconds and $6,802,920 in purse earnings. Seventeen of those victories have come in graded stakes, including Grade 1s on both turf and dirt.

This year, Wise Dan is two-for-two, winning the April 11 Maker's 46 Mark at Keeneland and May 3 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. He underwent emergency colic surgery on May 16 and has been on the road to recovery, returning to the work tab on July 11 and breezing six times since arriving at Saratoga in mid-July.

"I think so many horses, they drill them into the ground to get Horse of the Year," LoPresti said. "They worry about making stallions rather than doing what's right by the horse. If everything goes right and you get Horse of the Year, fine. But, if you map out a campaign for a horse just to try to get Horse of the Year, I'm not that kind of trainer. It all depends on what the turf writers want, anyway, and what they think.

"There's still a lot of people that say he shouldn't have gotten Horse of the Year (in 2013), and a lot of people voted against him. It's just how they see it. I could say if he wins this race and he comes back from surgery and is undefeated, he should be Horse of the Year. How many horses have colic surgery in the middle of the year and come back? But, that's not what it's all about."

LoPresti took time to reflect on the accomplishments of Wise Dan, who won his first stakes in the Phoenix over Keeneland's Polytrack in 2010. He posted career-high 110 BRIS Speed Figures in the 2013-12 editions of the Fourstardave at the Spa and has victories in successive runnings of the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita.

"It's been an unbelievable ride to have a horse like that. It's hard to describe," he said. "Every time you think about how great this horse is, it's like, 'Wow, can you believe I trained a horse like that?' Or for Mr. Fink to say, 'Can you believe I bred a horse like that?' It's really gratifying, and you just feel like you really accomplished something. There's been a lot of people that have had a big part in this horse."

Wise Dan will face 10 in the Bernard Baruch, including multiple Grade 3 hero Optimizer, who has been away since a dismal 12th-place finish in the Elkhorn in April at Keeneland. The English Channel five-year-old will attempt to get his career back on track Saturday in the 1 1/16-mile Bernard Baruch.

Optimizer returns to action after spending time at Calumet Farm.
Optimizer has competed well against some of the top horses in training. He was second to Point of Entry last year in the Manhattan at Belmont Park and runner-up to Wise Dan in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.

He has not fared well in four starts since the Manhattan and been freshened by owner Calumet for this rematch with Wise Dan.

"He came in with some problems, obviously," said Jose Fernandez, the longtime on-farm trainer for Calumet, who has taken over the conditioning of Optimizer. "We worked on him. I had to work on his throat, and now he's been training pretty good. He's worked a mile twice (at the Calumet training center). My hope is he will run good here, and there's another race I can run him back in. The end game is to get to the Breeders' Cup. He's on his toes. He's been in the feed bag."

Fernandez, however, has not been on his toes. He is currently recovering from double knee-replacement surgery. Trainer Rusty Arnold will saddle Optimizer in the Bernard Baruch.

"He's been galloping the last couple of days in New York," Fernandez said of Optimizer, who arrived Monday in Saratoga. "He schooled in the paddock (on Wednesday), so I'm hoping he fires like he used to. This one I wanted to run in my name. I think he's going to run really well."

Sky Blazer will be a long shot to defeat Wise Dan in the Bernard Baruch, but the six-year-old gelding has already beaten the odds just to race again.

Trained by Barclay Tagg for owner-breeder Joyce Young, Sky Blazer has trained steadily at Saratoga since finishing third, beaten less than a length, in the 1 1/2-mile Bowling Green Handicap on July 12 at Belmont Park.

Saturday's Baruch will be the 29th lifetime start for Sky Blazer, who owns a record of 5-4-4 with $342,542 in purse earnings. At Saratoga, he was fourth by three lengths in the 2011 Saranac and third by 2 1/2 lengths in the 2012 Baruch.

The following winter, Sky Blazer was injured in a morning mishap at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's satellite training facility in Boynton Beach, Florida.

"A horse was running loose and crashed into him when he was at a standstill. He got hurt really badly," Tagg said. "It broke his tailbone and everything and he's been a long time recuperating from that. It never seemed to stop him, but he certainly wasn't at his best for about a year until all his nerves came back and his hind end filled out again.

"He looks beautiful now. He's not 100 percent, but he looks great. It really curtailed his career a little bit."

Tagg and Young, whose professional relationship dates back 29 years, gave some consideration to retiring Sky Blazer before making the decision to persevere with his career.

"I had this wonderful chiropractor, Shirley McQuillan, go over him and she said all his nerves would come back, but it was going to take a year," Tagg said. "She was exactly right. A year to the day is when his hind end started to fill out again, which it wouldn't do with the nerves being damaged. He couldn't swish his tail for a year, either. It was all caved in.

"He's had a lot to overcome. We didn't really have to stop him, but he wasn't quite himself, either. He was probably five or 10 lengths worse than he used to be."

Young has had a particular attachment to Sky Blazer, having owned his grandmother, Highland Mills, who won three Grade 3 stakes with Tagg including the Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap and Daryl's Joy -- now the Fourstardave -- in 1989 at Saratoga.

"The (owner) doesn't want to put him in claiming races or anything like that, and I can't blame her," Tagg said. "She raised him, and he's a good-looking horse and an honest horse. It's either sell him for a steeplechase horse or put him in a claiming race or keep running him. He's a nice horse."