Wise Dan joins elite company

January, 20, 2014

The coronation of Wise Dan took place Saturday night -- once again.

For the second straight year, the grand old gelding was crowned as Horse of the Year and was named a champion in two other categories, putting him among some highly elite company. No one else has ever won three Eclipse Awards in back-to-back years, and only five other champions have been Horse of the Year in successive years.

What Wise Dan did last year put him in the record book alongside Curlin, Cigar, Affirmed, Forego and Secretariat, yet in retrospect what we saw from him in 2013 could not hold the proverbial candle to what the other back-to-back HOY winners accomplished and the challenges they faced.

Cigar, Affirmed, Forego and Secretariat are among the sports immortals and comparing anyone to them is blatantly unfair.

Yet even Curlin had a far more ambitious campaign as a reigning Horse of the Year.

Curlin clearly lived up to the mantle of a champion as he raced in some of the years best races on dirt … Wise Dan, in contrast, played it safe.

Curlin, in his second of his Horse of the Year campaigns, did not have a winning percentage as high as Wise Dan did. Curlin won 5 of 7 races in 2008, while Wise Dan had six wins in seven tries this past year.

Yet Curlins 2008 campaign featured wins in three Grade 1 dirt classics, the Stephen Foster, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He even traveled halfway around the world and won the Dubai World Cup. His two losses? One came on turf in the Grade 1 Man oWar and the other came on an artificial surface at Santa Anita in the Breeders Cup Classic.

Curlin clearly lived up to the mantle of a champion as he raced in some of the years best races on dirt -- his preferred surface where he was undefeated in 2008 -- and also faced some challenges worthy of a champion by running on grass, an artificial surface, and in Dubai.

Wise Dan, in contrast, played it safe. After winning the Breeders Cup Mile to cap his 2012 Horse of Year season, it was rather obvious that Wise Dan was an outstanding turf miler. His win that year in the Ben Ali on Polytrack and a hard-luck loss on dirt in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster showed that he was highly versatile and had a champions mettle when it came to facing a challenge.

Yet this past year, the obvious was hammered home over and over again. We saw that Wise Dan was an exceptional turf miler, but nothing more. He was entered in six races at a mile and one at mile and an eighth. The only time he didnt race on turf, it was not by design. A downpour washed the Shadwell Turf Mile off Keenelands grass course and turned it into the Shadwell Polytrack Mile and a Sixteenth -- which served as the setting for Wise Dans lone defeat in 2013 when he finished second.

The best horses he faced all year were the likes of Za Approval, Obviously and Silver Max as well as Europes Olympic Glory, hardly a roster of future Hall of Famers.

It was a solid season, but certainly not as challenging as traveling to Dubai like Curlin and Cigar did as reigning Horse of the Year or sweeping the Triple Crown as Secretariat did, or simply dominating the years best horses like Affirmed and Forego did.

In comparison, Wise Dan had a rather vanilla season for a champion that shined brightest off all when Game On Dude fizzled in the Breeders Cup, Royal Delta tailed off at five and Will Take Charge caught fire a bit too late in the campaign.

At least the story is not over. The 7-year-old gelding is slated to race this year and whether he runs once or seven times in the coming year, its a given his accomplishments will one day be properly honored with inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Hes that good of a horse.

But as Wise Dan tries to match Forego as the only horse to win three straight Horse of the Year titles, hopefully hell treat us to a more adventurous campaign. Instead of watching him win the Fourstardave at Saratoga for a third straight year, how about seeing him a week earlier in the meet against Will Take Charge and other top handicap stars on dirt in the Whitney Handicap?

Or perhaps earlier in the year he can target the Grade 1 Stephen Foster during Churchill Downs spring meet instead of the Grade 2 Firecracker on turf.

We already know from the events of the past two years that Wise Dan is as good of an American turf miler as the sport has seen. Maybe, with some luck, in 2014 well get a chance to find out so much more about him.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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