Wise Dan on the right track

In the movie Let's Dance, in what would prove to be a rare moment, Fred Astaire briefly plays a piano. That's actually him playing, not a surrogate, for he was in fact an excellent musician. He could play the accordion, too, and the clarinet. But in his 31 musical films he's rarely seen playing anything because what would have been the point? He was an incomparable dancer. Given the choice, audiences preferred his dancing to his anything else, and so does posterity. It's as a dancer that he'll forever be remembered.

Perhaps we should keep that in mind when, in our advisory mode, we urge a move to the dirt for Wise Dan or when, in an Aladdin fantasy, we wish the reigning Horse of the Year would aim for the Arlington Million or the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Remaining on the turf and at a mile, Wise Dan returns to Saratoga Saturday in the Fourstardave Handicap.

Advisors who have nothing to lose, wish-granters who can't afford better accommodations than a lamp -- well, you can hardly trust their reliability, can you, and he's not called wise for nothing. And so, remaining on the turf and at a mile, Wise Dan returns to Saratoga Saturday in the Fourstardave Handicap.

He'll be heavily favored, of course, to win his eighth consecutive stakes, a streak that began in this race a year ago and includes the Breeders' Cup Mile, where he defeated not only America's best milers but some of Europe's as well. Although his streak lacks variety, it nevertheless shines with superiority, and it has him sitting atop polls and soaring high in popular esteem.

But just as you were snuggling up to the idea that you're now living in the Age of Specialization -- for all his recent wins have come on the turf and all but one at Saturday's one-mile distance -- you wake up to discover that, no, you're still in the Age of Grousing. Despite its excellence and consistency, some have criticized Wise Dan's campaign as not bold enough or imaginative enough or whatever enough. All these one-mile turf races just aren't befitting a Horse of the Year that might have greatness within him. He should try the dirt to prove himself worthy of a coffee-table book, or he should try 10 furlongs, the critics argue, to confirm his greatness, or maybe he should just try the piano.

Every owner has two obligations to his racehorse: First, an owner is responsible for the horse's health and safety; second, an owner has an obligation to give a racehorse the opportunity to fulfill his potential. And sometimes, despite the best intentions, the two obligations collide. Yes, retirement is less risky and safer than racing, but how many horses in recent years were retired prematurely and as a result never had the opportunity to sound the depths of their talents or discover just how good, or maybe even great, they might have been? On the other hand, how many horses were compromised or injured, how many careers derailed or even ruined, in the pursuit of unattainable goals? Some horses are like beautiful statues in that they can't be changed. You can't release a statue from the stoicism of its marble, and if you try you risk ruining it. But how many owners cast their horses in roles they can't play?

Wise Dan can play many roles, as it turns out, despite his recent specialization. He actually has tried a little bit of everything in his career. He romped in the Ben Ali Stakes over Keeneland's synthetic surface, for example, and he won the Clark Handicap on the dirt. He probably should have won on the dirt again at Churhill Downs, where a rough trip cost him in last year's Stephen Foster. His versatility is, in fact, one of his foremost virtues. He can compete on the highest level on any surface and at any distance up to 1 ⅛ miles. He probably could compete at a very high level at 1 ΒΌ miles. But at a mile on turf, well, he's quite simply one of the best horses in the world, and having discovered that, why should his connections ask him to do anything else?

If Fred Astaire had focused instead on his piano playing, would he have become an incomparable musician? And, even more important, if he had devoted his time and energy to the piano or clarinet, would he ever have become the same incomparable dancer? Probably not.

Greatness defines itself in many ways. The greatness of Kelso and John Henry, defined over many years, differed in kind from the greatness of Ruffian and Secretariat. Some might argue that Wise Dan will never achieve greatness without another foray onto the dirt or a run at a classic distance. But since he has lost but once in his career on turf, the more convincing argument might be quite the opposite. And if a year from now we're still talking about Wise Dan's streak of victories, there will be no question of his greatness.