Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Tale of Two Champions

ELMONT, NY, July 2, 2013—Last Saturday at Churchill Downs, anyone tethered to the game got a few stark examples about how Thoroughbred racing's the owners and trainers can approach the business differently.

That morning, defending Filly & Mare Eclipse Sprint Champion Groupie Doll had her first quasi-serious workout since her extended freshening. It was only a 3- furlong move, albeit a quick one, but trainer Buff Bradley needed to start somewhere, anywhere.

There was a schedule for her 2013 campaign that it changed drastically when, in South Florida this winter, the champ was very lethargic in her training. Rather than force the issue, Bradley turned her out, allowed her to be a horse for a while before finally got her back to the racetrack last weekend.

Originally, the mare was to include a month freshening then train in Florida for a spring/summer campaign. The layup was ordered by Bradley, who co-owns Groupie Doll with his father and clients Brent Burns and Carl Hurst, came immediately after her heart-thumping, gut-wrenching, nose defeat to 2011 Travers-winning Stay Thirsty in the Cigar Mile—a race that Bradley hoped would make the filly a serious Horse of the Year finalist.

Saturday's workout was of little consequence in the big picture but it served its purpose. “The big thing today was that she was willing to [train] and she wasn’t at Gulfstream,” Bradley said Saturday at Churchill Downs. “Fillies are a little temperamental and they might not come back as good as you had hoped…”

Fillies can be that way, of course, but so could any race horse forced to reach down deep to all their talented and courage, especially at the end of a full campaign. Last season, Groupie Doll's record included five straight graded stakes wins, three of them Grade 1, from April through November before her courageous effort on Thanksgiving weekend.

This was a case of four owners that woke up when morning after their filly just won the Vinery Madison, her first incursion into Grade 1 company, and began to think really big. They had a good filly that could have won plenty of life-altering money but they began to think big, to see what their horse could really do.

And she did plenty. Freshened for the fall, she came out and dominated the Presque Isle Downs Masters and did the same thing in the TCA at Keeneland before nailing down the championship in the Breeders' Cup F & M Sprint. Their dream got them this far but they dreamt bigger still and got thisclose to winning a possible Horse of the Year title.

As destiny would have it, the actual Horse of the Year would run on the same day and win but under adverse conditions and under a lot more pressure to do so in what was supposed to be easy bridge race. The Firecracker Handicap was anything but easy.

But what was Wise Dan doing in that race in the first place? The defending Horse of the Year has won over three different surfaces and there was an opportunity at the recently concluded meet to get revenge for last year’s nagging loss in G1 Stephen Foster.

In hindsight, running in the Firecracker turned out to be fortunate. Maybe trainer Charlie LoPresti had watched Fort Larned train up to the Foster. The Breeders' Cup Classic winner won in breathtaking fashion, a spectacle of speed that was on display every step of the nine furlongs. It’s doubtful any horse in the country could have beaten Fort Larned on that night.

Running in the Firecracker was fortuitous in that context, but only that context. The race was run over a turf course that became boggy from a brief but furious downpour. Wise Dan did not handle the footing particularly well. And if all the jockeys and horses in the race were counted as separate entities, it was eight against two out there on the Louisville turf course.

Johnny Velazquez wanted to save as much horse and ground as possible but it turned out to be Jack in the Box all the way from gate to wire. It looked like a hole would never open.

But Wise Dan and Johnny showed class and courage, bulling their way through a narrow opening inside, brushing the hedge soundly in the process before bobbling significantly near the sixteenth pole prior to striding away for the win.

And recall—how could one forget?—that he was carrying a steadying 128 pounds. Is that a lot weight? By today’s standards, sure, even if it was of little consequence. The race did little to alter Wise Dan's place in racing history.

The Horse of the Year, who’s been pointed to the Bernard Baruch on the Saratoga turf course all season but LoPresti is now considering run in either of Saratoga's prestigious dirt events, the Whitney or Woodward.

But that would might not be as sporting as it appears. LoPresti would love to win a Grade 1 on dirt this year and keep Wise Dan unbeaten for the remainder of 2013, racing on the turf thereafter in an effort to have Wise Dan repeat as Horse of the Year without having to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, one of the original stated goals.

There's little doubt that the physical issues currently compromising stablemate Successful Dan has required rethinking Wise Dan’s schedule. But how come it turns out that Wise Dan's schedule is usually risk averse? How can he avoid the 2012 Classic winner all year and be worthy of the accolades sure to come his way if he runs the table from this point forward?

If that’s the case, Wise Dan would likely go the Bernard Baruch-Woodward route. Is that good planning? Yes. A sporting gesture? Not a chance.

If I were conjuring a future path forward for Wise Dan for the remainder of 2013, I’m asking myself one question: What would Buff Bradley do?

Written by John Pricci

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