BERNARD BARUCH HANDICAP | PURSE: $250,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 2 | 1 1/16 MILES (TURF)
The champ is back.
Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, making his first start since returning from May 16 colic surgery, held off 29-1 shot Optimizer by a nose Aug. 30 to win the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga Race Course.
Morton Fink's homebred gelding covered the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:39.08, just a tick off the course record.
"He was really tough. He showed he has the heart of a champion," Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez remarked. "It's incredible to have this horse coming back."
Wise Dan gave racegoers a nerve-wracking moment before the start of the Bernard Baruch when he reared up in the gate and unseated Velazquez. But the 7-year-old son of Wiseman's Ferry was reloaded without further issue and broke well, settling into a rail-skimming pocket trip in fourth behind a pace set by Five Iron.
That rival showed the way through an opening quarter in :23.26 seconds and a half in :46.32 seconds, with 127-pound highweight Wise Dan shadowing a trio made up of the leader, Bio Pro, and Sayaad.
Wise Dan swung out around the turn as three-quarters went in 1:09.77, and was set down for the drive to pass the tiring front-runners through a 1:33.20 mile. Optimizer made a determined late charge but the six-time Eclipse Award winner held him off at the line, securing his 22nd career victory from 30 starts in a photo finish.
"[He carried] 127 pounds coming from a long layoff," Velazquez said. "When I got to the eighth pole, I didn't think I got it. When I got past the sixteenth pole he was giving me everything he had and the other horse was coming from the outside. There was a little bit of doubt, he was getting tired. [I'm] incredibly proud. What happened to him, training and come back and run with 127 pounds, that's incredible."
"We wanted a good race for him to get started with," trainer Charlie LoPresti said. "He's been through a lot. I knew he was training good and I knew he was going to run good. I wouldn't have been disappointed if he was beat today; it would have been something to build on. He showed today why he is the two-time Horse of the Year."
LoPresti opted to run Wise Dan in the Bernard Baruch instead of the Aug. 9 Fourstardave Handicap -- a race the six-time Eclipse Award winner took in 2012 and 2013 -- because the chestnut gelding needed a few more weeks to return to form.
"We wanted to run here [at Saratoga]," LoPresti said. "I came here to run. I came here to train, and I came here to run. I really wanted to do it, and I'm really glad that we did."
Wise Dan's next target is the Oct. 4 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland en route to a bid at his third consecutive Breeders' Cup Mile win Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park. He remains undefeated in 2014, having aced repeat victories in the April 11 Maker's 46 Mile and May 3 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic before undergoing surgery earlier this season.
"He'll build from this race, I have to think," LoPresti said. "God willing, he comes back good. He'll be way tougher next time."
Favored at odds of 4-5 in a field of eight, Wise Dan returned $3.60, $3.10, and $2.20 while Optimizer brought $14.60 and $8.20. Five Iron was third for $4.70, as Sayaad, Bio Pro, North Star Boy, Sky Blazer, Boisterous, and Paris Vegas completed the order of finish. Lea and Red Rifle, main track only entrants, scratched.
Bred in Kentucky out of the Wolf Power mare Lisa Danielle, Wise Dan collected the 18th graded stakes score of a career that includes 10 Grade 1 victories. His earnings now stand at $6,952,920.