Versatile gelding Wise Dan goes for his first Grade 1 victory on grass as the 6-5 morning line favorite in the $1 million Ricoh Woodbine Mile Sept. 16.
Morton Fink's 5-year-old homebred can give trainer Charles Lopresti consecutive wins in the Woodbine event after last year's triumph by 6-1 shot Turallure. Wise Dan drew post 3 in the field of nine and is to be ridden again by John Velazquez. The Hall of Fame jockey has won the Woodbine Mile twice previously with Leroidesanimaux in 2005 and Riviera in 2001.
Three European imports, led by Dubai Duty Free winner Cityscape, help spice up this year's Woodbine Mile. The race, scheduled for Sunday at 5:42 p.m. EDT, will be televised to the United States audience on TVG with Simon Bray and Paul LoDuca reporting live. In Canada, The Score will provide special two-hour live coverage of the racing extravaganza from Woodbine from 4 to 6 p.m. EDT.
The card includes three other graded stakes: the $500,000 Northern Dancer Presented by Vtech at 1 1/2 miles on grass, the $300,000 Canadian Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on turf, and the $150,000 Ontario Derby for 3-year-olds on Polytrack.
Cityscape, second choice at 5-2, is the 124-pound high weight. Wise Dan is one of three horses in the field assigned 121.
The Woodbine Mile is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" event that offers the winner an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park Nov. 3.
Wise Dan showed an appreciation for yielding turf when he romped to a five-length victory in the one-mile Fourstardave Handicap in his most recent start Aug. 11 on the inner grass course at Saratoga Race Course.
With Get Stormy leading the field into the stretch and Corporate Jungle looming large with a three-wide rally, a patient Velazquez, riding on the inside behind the leader, waited for the rail to open up and surged home a resounding winner.
Lopresti said that going in, he had no idea how Wise Dan would handle the boggy going.
"Around the turn, I thought maybe he was backing off of it a little bit and those other horses were going to kick on and he wasn't going to kick on," said Lopresti. "But, when he came back, Johnny said, 'I bet you were about to kill me around the turn down the backside' and I said, 'Yeah, I didn't know what was going on.' He said, 'That was just me taking him back, I wanted him to make one run.'"
It was the second win from three tries on grass for the son of Wiseman's Ferry .
Ranked second nationally in the weekly NTRA poll, Wise Dan will be looking for his third triumph in four starts this season after a runner-up finish in the Stephen Foster Handicap on dirt at Churchill Downs in June and an earlier 10 1/2-length romp in the Ben Ali Stakes on the Keeneland Polytrack.
Lopresti might still be a bit undecided which ground suits his star best.
"I do think he is better on synthetic and grass but he's pretty good on the dirt as well … and an off track," he said.
Heading into the Woodbine Mile, Lopresti said he is most concerned about how Wise Dan will react to different circumstances.
"I don't know how he'll handle the one-turn mile at Woodbine. And considering how long that stretch is, he might get a little bit confused, because it's a long one, all lright; but I said that about Turallure last year, and he got there."
Wise Dan is a 10-time winner in his career from 17 starts with earnings of nearly $1.4 million.
Juddmonte Farms' Dubai Duty Free winner Cityscape is the main rival. Trained by Roger Charlton, the 6-year-old British-bred son of Selkirk has lost three in a row since his win in the $5 million event over nine furlongs at Meydan March 31. Cityscape drew post 7 and will be ridden by James Doyle.
Charlton tried to stretch him out to 10 furlongs in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown Park July 7. However, Cityscape finished a tiring fourth to Nathaniel, one of the favorites for next month's famed Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Citscape rebounded with a runner-up effort in the Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville Aug. 12.
"He's been very consistent," said Charlton. "He placed in Deauville three weeks back, beaten by Excelebration, who's been second to Frankel a couple of times. Frankel is about seven or eight lengths better than the rest. We're a bit behind that. He [Cityscape] obviously ran a fantastic race at Meydan. And in many ways, Woodbine is a similarly-shaped track, with a long straight and sweeping turns."
Also shipping in from England is Diego Romeo's Irish-bred Worthadd, a well-traveled 5-year-old son of Dubawi making his first North American appearance for trainer Sir Mark Prescott. Worthadd was a star in Italy as a 3-year-old, then trained by Vittorio Caruso.
The multiple group winner made his British debut in the 2011 JLT Lockinge Stakes in the QIPCO British Champions Series Mile category at Newbury in May of 2011, losing by 1 1/4 lengths, to Canford Cliffs. Worthadd is coming off a runner-up finish in a group II event in Germany July 15. Luis Contreras is to ride Worthadd from post 9.
The European contingent is completed by Mohammed Rashid's Irish-bred Dance and Dance, hoping to rebound from a troubled sixth in last year's Woodbine Mile when beaten by less than two lengths.
"It was very frustrating," said Ed Vaughan, who conditions Dance And Dance, a 6-year-old Royal Applause gelding. "He's always been a slow breaker, and a late finisher, and he just had nowhere to run. Every time he switched left he was blocked. Considering they went a good pace, he ended up being a bit of a muddle at the end. Had he got out, we might have been lucky enough to win."
Dance and Dance has finished in the money in four of six starts in 2012, winning once. He comes off a third in a conditioned stakes at Newmarket Aug. 4. He will partner with top U.S rider Garrett Gomez, a two-time winner of the Mile with Shakespeare (2007) and Ventura (2009), for the first time on Sunday.
The local contingent includes Big Band Sound, Riding the River, Artic Fern, Hollinger, and Hunters Bay, who will be trying the turf for the first time.
Former claimer Big Band Sound, trained by Dan Vella for Kendel Standlee, arrives at the top of his game, winning Woodbine's seven-furlong Play the King by a widening 2 1/2 lengths following a two-month freshening Aug. 26.
"He had four tough races in a row so we decided to freshen him for the fall," said Vella of the 5-year-old Bernstein horse. "A fresh horse is always dangerous. He settled nice behind the speed [in the Play the King] and the rest was up to him. It was a very potent performance, that's for sure."
Riding the River ran on for second in the Play the King, an effort that came following upset victories in the King Edward and Nijinsky stakes over the Woodbine lawn. David Cotey trains the 5-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding, another former claimer whom he purchased for his Dominion Bloodstock for $3,500. Riding the River ran fifth in last year's Woodbine Mile.
Gustav Schickedanz's 5-year-old homebred Artic Fern, plagued by a shoulder injury earlier in his career, makes his eighth start of the year for trainer Mike Keogh. The son of Langfuhr ran fourth in the Play the King after pressing the pace from the inside.
Hollinger, eighth in last year's Woodbine Mile for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield, has not been out since finishing fouth in the Nijinsky July 22. That followed a narrow loss in the one-mile King Edward in which he was neck behind Riding the River while finishing third. Attfield has won the Woodbine Mile twice previously, the last victory coming in 1993 with Peteski.
Stronach Stables' homebred Hunters Bay would make history by becoming the first horse to win the Woodbine Mile in his initial start on grass. A five-year-old son of Stronach's champion Ghostzapper, Hunters Bay has been undefeated in four starts on Woodbine's Polytrack, including the Eclipse and Dominion Day stakes earlier this year. He enters the Mile off a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Aug. 4.
"I don't know what happened in the Whitney," admitted trainer Reade Baker. "I was going to blame it on the track, but instead I'm going to blame it on the heat. It was 102 degrees that day."