If ever there was a time to beat Wise Dan, that time is now.
You can practically see that thought percolating in the minds of trainers at Saratoga Race Course, where the two-time Horse of the Year has been training all summer.
On May 16, colic surgery took Wise Dan out of action after he took his first two races of the season -- repeat victories in the April 11 Maker's 46 Mile and the May 3 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.
Seventeen weeks since his last race, and 106 days removed from that emergency proceedure, on Aug. 30 the six-time Eclipse Award winner will face a solid field in the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap. Ten other runners entered the 1 1/16-mile turf test to contest the 127-pound highweight making his highly anticipated return, although two of them -- Lea and Red Rifle -- are entered for the main track only.
Charlie LoPresti is a realist, a worrier, and a consumate horseman who has managed the six-time Eclipse Award winner brilliantly through four seasons of racing. Three weeks ago he bypassed the Aug. 9 Fourstardave, a race Wise Dan had won twice before, because he felt his runner was not quite ready.
"I wanted to bring him along slow, so I did that, and this gave me a little bit more time," LoPresti said. "He's ready to run and I don't want to sit around and not run him here and take him back to Kentucky and have to go back to Woodbine [for the Sept. 14 Ricoh Woodbine Mile], so my goal is to run here."
Wise Dan has won two consecutive editions of the Breeders' Cup Mile, 10 Grade 1 races, and seventeen graded stakes overall, for 21 wins and earnings of $6,802,920. But the 7-year-old homebred could face his steepest test as the 3-5 favorite on the inner turf in the Bernard Baruch, having spent the past four months recuperating from surgery. Many wonder if, in his comeback, the racing world will see the same horse who in 2012 and 2013 dazzled with multiple flawless performances.
"Everybody tells me that it shouldn't affect him, what happened to him, and I don't think it's affected him, but you don't know that until you run," LoPresti said.
Wise Dan has had seven works since the operation, the past six at Saratoga. Despite a slow start, in his most recent move over the main track he went a strong half-mile on the dirt in :47.92 seconds Aug. 24, seventh-fastest of 101 moves that morning.
BERNARD BARUCH HANDICAP DRAW
"He's gotten back to where he was; he's dragging his rider around there," LoPresti said. "His works have been really good, and they've been basically not even asking him to do that. He's just been doing it in hand.
"I think he's back to himself again. It took him a while to get back. We were probably two works short of the Fourstardave. Once we got him up here, I realized I was trying to play catch-up to make that race and this makes more sense."
Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez will be back aboard the chestnut champion, who drew post 5
"I want to get him started. I'm not going to jump off the roof if he gets beat half a length or a length, something like that," LoPresti said. "He's been beaten before, so that doesn't worry me. He got beat in the Shadwell Mile [in October 2013] and everybody started writing him off, but he got beat by a horse that got on the front end and just stole the race.
"It could happen again [Saturday], but Johnny's smart enough. He's not going to abuse him and chase some horse around there just to get a win in him. If he's lucky enough to win, fine, but if it sets him up for the Shadwell and the Breeders' Cup, I'm OK with that, too."
Wise Dan will give up between eight and 13 pounds to his rivals in the Baruch. He carried 129 pounds in his 1 ¼-length victory over King Kreesa in last year's Fourstardave.
"He is going to have to carry more weight and that's the one thing I'm concerned about; I know we did it last year but this is a different scenario," LoPresti said. "Any kind of colic surgery is colic surgery, so you have to be concerned about that. But he is ready to run; he's very good right now, his last three works have indicated that.
"It's just that last year he didnt have the setback that he had in the middle of the year, he didn't have colic surgery. He's 100%, I feel pretty certain about that, but he hasn't run since May and that's something you have to think about."
With many lining up to take a shot at Wise Dan, the only other Grade 1 winner in the Baruch field is Boisterous, a 7-year-old son of Distorted Humor making his sixth start since being transferred to trainer Todd Pletcher for the 2014 campaign.
Boisterous won the Man o' War last summer at Belmont Park for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey and owns one victory in four career tries on the Saratoga turf, his maiden triumph in August 2010. Most recently he finished fourth, beaten 1 ¼ lengths, in the Bowling Green Handicap going 1 ½ miles on July 12 at Belmont.
Closing in on 1,000 career stakes victories, Pletcher captured the 1 ⅛-mile Cliff Hanger on Aug. 24 at Monmouth Park with Winning Cause, who the trainer cut back in distance after running fourth in the 1 ⅝-mile John's Call at Saratoga. Pletcher won the 2012 Bernard Baruch with Dominus.
"Sometimes you get an improved effort when you're going from longer to shorter [distances]. We saw that with Winning Cause," Pletcher said. "Boisterous shows up and tries hard every time. He's been training steadily since his last race and he's doing well. On certain days, he's shown that he can compete at the highest level."
Half of a Gary Barber-owned entry with Bio Pro, Boisterous will carry jockey Javier Castellano and 119 pounds from post 4.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin won three straight editions of the Bernard Baruch with Shakis (2007-08) and Justenuffhumor (2009), and goes for a fourth with Sayaad. The 4-year-old Street Sense colt had his three-race win streak snapped when fifth to Seek Again in the Fourstardave, after dueling with grade I-winning pacesetter Silver Max. It was a loose-on-the-lead Silver Max that ended Wise Dan's nine-race streak in the 2013 Shadwell Mile.
"We could be on an uncontested lead, but Wise Dan is keen and off a long layoff; he could be breathing down our throats or he could be on the lead," McLaughlin said. "I'm hoping we can be on the lead, but if there's other speed we can lay second. He did rate [in the Fourstardave], we just need to time it right."
Jose Ortiz will ride Sayaad, assigned 117 pounds, from post 10.
Sky Blazer will be making his 29th career start and 10th in a graded stakes in the Bernard Baruch, a race in which he finished third in 2012. He is 1-for-6 this year, winning an optional claiming allowance at Gulfstream Park in March and finishing third by less than a length in the Bowling Green.
"I've run him long, I've run him short, and he's run decently both ways," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "I can't get something that really fits him well, so we might as well take a shot. Big things happen sometimes if you're in there. You never know what's going to happen."
Sky Blazer will break from outside post 11 under Rajiv Maragh and carry 116 pounds.
Rounding out the field are multiple grade III winners Five Iron, who took the 2013 Saranac at Saratoga for trainer Brian Lynch, and Optimizer, a veteran of all three legs of the 2012 Triple Crown for previous trainer D. Wayne Lukas; North Star Boy, a Spa allowance winner on July 19; and Bio Pro and Paris Vegas, second and sixth, respectively, in the Lure on Aug. 2 at the Spa.
The Bernard Baruch is one of four graded stakes on the Saturday program, along with the $600,000 Woodward, $500,000 Forego, and $300,000 Prioress.