Dick Jerardi: Toast to Wise Dan, Fort Larned

Posted: November 05, 2012

HORSE BREEDERS have been trying for centuries to create champions. It remains an inexact science.

Never was that more apparent than during Saturday's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. The likely 2012 Horse of the Year is by a $3,500 stallion that is nobody's idea of fashionable. The winner of the $5 million Classic is by a stallion that stands next to Smarty Jones at Northview in Peach Bottom, Pa.

When 2012 began, if somebody had told you that the Horse of the Year would be Wise Dan and the Classic winner would be Fort Larned, you would have considered them to be from an alternative universe. By the time darkness fell at Santa Anita, Wise Dan had set a course record for a mile on the grass and Fort Larned had run a strong Classic field right off their feet.

One could make a case for several H/Y candidates, but it is really hard to get past Wise Dan, a son of Wiseman's Ferry. The voting is just for the calendar year, but if you go back to last November, Wise Dan has won a Grade I stake on dirt, earned the fastest speed figure ever on a synthetic surface, just won three straight Grade I stakes on grass and was a photo away from another Grade I on dirt that would have meant a perfect season.

They moved the Mile to the race just before the Classic because the field was so strong. All Wise Dan did was run the distance in an insane 1:31.78. He was great and had to be, as 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, making just his second start in 17 months and first since February, was flying at the finish, suggesting he will be a major player in 2013.

"It really hasn't hit me yet but it's an incredible accomplishment; it's really the horse," trainer Charlie Lopresti said. "He's an incredible horse. He has done things in the morning that you just don't believe. He's just a dream come true. You work all your life to get a horse like this."

Owner Morton Fink has been in the business for 40 years. Never had anything like this.

"As soon as he sees daylight he's gone and nobody will beat him, nobody," Fink said.

Hard to argue. Horses don't hold their form on all three of racing's surfaces. Wise Dan does. And he is a gelding so they can't retire him to stud. He races on. He is good enough to make a run at the Classic next year.

This year, it was Fort Larned. A year ago, the colt was 2-for-10 and had just finished last in an allowance race, beaten by 21 lengths. Trainer Ian Wilkes put a set of blinkers on the colt and, just like that, the horse blew up, winning stakes in Florida and Iowa before proving his speed figures were no fluke when he won the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga.

Fort Larned, a son of Pennsylvania stallion E Dubai, had the right attribute for the Santa Anita surface - speed. It was almost impossible to make up ground. Fort Larned went right to the front and would not let the very tough Mucho Macho Man by in the stretch. The rest of the field, including favorite Game On Dude, was far back.

"If we miss the break we're dead, we can't win," Wilkes told jockey Brian Hernandez, riding on his 27th birthday and at Santa Anita for the first time.

Unlike Fort Larned, Game On Dude did not break well and his best attribute was gone. The Classic favorite ended a dreadful 2 days for trainer Bob Baffert - 0-for-9 with one in-the-money finish.

It was a great Saturday for Kentucky trainers - Lopresti, Wilkes, Dale Romans (Little Mike in the Turf) and Buff Bradley (the amazing Groupie Doll in the Filly & Mare Sprint).

Trainer Bill Mott did not win both Classics like last year, but his wonderful filly Royal Delta, who won the Delaware Handicap in July, repeated in the Ladies Classic on Friday. She was purchased for $8.5 million a year ago, will race in 2013 and will turn out to be worth even more than the giant price.

It is no great shock that trainer Todd Pletcher has an unbeaten 2-year-old who will head to the winter as the early favorite for the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Shanghai Bobby had won his four races with complete ease. The Juvenile looked like more of the same - until the colt seemed to stop running in the stretch. Then, when a challenge came from He's Had Enough, Shanghai Bobby re-broke and refused to let the challenger pass.

That Rosie Napravnik rides Shanghai Bobby adds to the Derby intrigue as no female has ever won America's race. She certainly has the talent to do it. Now, she may have the horse.

"It's great to have an undefeated 2-year-old and go all the way from April to November; it's pretty hard to do," Pletcher said. "He's got everything you want. He's fast and he's courageous. He's handled everything we've thrown at him, from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. He just keeps coming."

Nearly 90,000 fans appeared at Santa Anita and $144 million was bet over the 2 days. Saturday's Pick 6 paid a cool $419,000. Racing's championship days did not have a Zenyatta moment this year, but the good news is that many of the winners will race on in 2013. In fact, the dreamers among us imagine a 2013 Classic at Santa Anita with Royal Delta, Fort Larned, Wise Dan, Animal Kingdom, Shanghai Bobby and whatever other 3-year-olds emerge in the spring. Now, that would be a race to see.

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com

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