He never backed down from a fight, and wherever they entered him, he ran.
In five Grade 1 races and a pair of Grade 2 events, the only male in North America to take home four Grade 1 victories, Wise Dan galloped his way through the most consistent season delivered by a racehorse in 2013 -- year-end honors firmly in his sights.
Last season, the chestnut son of modest stallion Wiseman's Ferry swept Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year, Older Male, and Male Turf Horse, the first runner to do so since John Henry in 1981. This year he pulled a remarkable repeat in all three categories, defeating Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and outstanding 3-year-old Will Take Charge for Horse of the Year, taking Older Male over Mucho Macho Man and hard-knocking Grade 1 handicap star Game On Dude, and easily sewing up Male Turf Horse over multiple Grade 1 winner Point of Entry and Breeders' Cup Turf victor Magician.
Wise Dan received 208 votes for Horse of the Year; Mucho Macho Man, 21; Will Take Charge, 15; Dank (GB), 1; Princess of Sylmar, 1; Royal Delta, 1. There were two voter abstentions.
Never since 1971 -- when the modern Eclipse Award voting system was put into place -- has a horse taken the three categories two years in a row. Wise Dan became the first to do so by winning six of seven starts on the turf, toting high weight five times, and racing at five different tracks in Kentucky, New York, Canada, and California over a seven-month period.
"If anything, I think he had a better year than last year," trainer Charlie LoPresti said of Morton Fink's homebred runner. "He won races with weight put on him, [and] we never scratched him; he was the most consistent horse all season."
Wise Dan is just the sixth horse in modern history to earn consecutive honors for Horse of the Year, and the first since Curlin in 2007-08. He joins Cigar (1995-96), Affirmed (1978-79), Forego (1974-76), and Secretariat (1972-73), and is one of only three other Horse of the Year winners whose campaigns were executed primarily or solely on turf. While John Henry, All Along in 1983, and Kotashaan in 1993 specialized in races contested at 1 ¼ miles and longer, Wise Dan is the first Horse of the Year whose significant victories have been accomplished on the grass at seven to eight furlongs.
Historically, Wise Dan joins champions such as Secretariat, who was named Horse of the Year, champion 3-year-old, and male turf horse in 1973; Dr. Fager, the 1968 Horse of the Year, champion older male, and champion sprint horse; Round Table, who collected Horse of the Year honors, a champion male turf horse award, and male handicap honors in 1958; and Fort Marcy, Horse of the Year, champion male turf horse, and champion older male in 1970. Now a 7-year-old, he remains the first gelding since John Henry in 1981 and 1984 to be named Horse of the Year.
In 2013 Wise Dan took the Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland on firm turf in April; the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and the Firecracker Handicap on very wet going at Churchill Downs in May and June; defended his title in the Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga Race Course in August; and set a course record at Woodbine with a sparkling 1:31.75 repeat in September's Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
His connections did not skip an edition of the Shadwell Turf Mile moved to Polytrack in an October deluge at Keeneland, and despite racing wide on both turns on the soggy surface, Wise Dan ran a good second to front-runner Silver Max. He rebounded in November with another victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile, the race he took in 2012 in a record 1:31.78 at Santa Anita Park.
This year Wise Dan overcame trouble just after the start and closed from eighth in a 10-horse field to win by three-quarters of a length under Jose Lezcano, who was substituting for injured Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez.
"The more you're around him, the more you realize how special he is," LoPresti said. "Even in the Shadwell, he tried his heart out on a track that was like running in the Florida Everglades. Even in defeat, he showed up. They just don't come around that often, horses like him -- the soundness of him, the ability. It's just a dream come true to have horse like that."
Foaled in Kentucky Feb. 20, 2007,and bred by 84-year-old Fink out of the modest Wolf Power mare Lisa Danielle -- a $29,000 purchase Fink kept after dispersing his broodmare band as he aged because she was named after his granddaughter -- in 2013 Wise Dan registered a 6-1-0 record from seven starts for earnings of $2,751,972. His career totals are 19-2-0 from 27 starts, with earnings of $6,293,610.
"It's truly amazing that I'm here again," Fink said. "Last year, I thought, was the height of my career, and Wise Dan just keeps going and going."
Wise Dan is currently enjoying a post-season rest at LoPresti's Forest Lane Farm near Lexington, and will begin gearing up for his 2014 campaign in 2-3 weeks with a return to his home base, Keeneland.
"He's been doing great; goes out in the paddock every day for three to four hours, a carbon copy of what he did last year," LoPresti said. "I'm not going to push him to do anything. I want to run him at Keeneland if it works out, but it's not the end of the world if he doesn't make it. This year, I'm going to be a bit more selective where he runs."
Meanwhile, according to Fink, fans could finally get what they've been hoping for -- a return to dirt by the six-time champion.
"I'm hoping that I can convince Charlie -- if the horse stays like he is -- this year, to run on the dirt going long," the owner said.