He was so reliable that visitors to the racetrack could set their watches by his appearance in the winner's circle. He was so revered, even loved, that his races became liturgical events. He was the most interesting racehorse in the world. And Wise Dan really was, for two years anyway.
But the two-time Horse of the Year has been retired because of a tendon injury. His trainer, Charles LoPresti, made the announcement Monday. An 8-year-old gelding, Wise Dan won 23 of his 31 races and $7,552,920, which puts him 13th, just behind Smarty Jones and ahead of Zenyatta, in all-time earnings.
In preparation for a return in Sunday's Woodbine Mile, he was training "lights out," LoPresti told the Daily Racing Form. Wise Dan hasn't raced since winning the Shadwell Mile last October at Keeneland. And he was aimed not just at the Woodbine race but also at the Breeders' Cup Mile, which he twice had won. But LoPresti spotted some swelling in an ankle while the champion was getting a bath Monday morning after a routine gallop. A scan revealed a tear.
Wise Dan is the only horse ever to win three Eclipse Awards in consecutive years. He was the champion older male, the champion male turf horse and Horse of the Year in both 2012 and 2013.
Since 1971, or since the inception of the Eclipse Awards, only six horses have been honored in consecutive seasons as Horse of the Year: Secretariat (1972-1973), Forego (1974-1976), Affirmed (1978-1979), Cigar (1995-1996), Curlin (2007-2008) and Wise Dan.
But that's not why everybody, from casual fans to grizzled horsemen, loved him. In a world seemingly obsessed with appearances and glitz, Wise Dan was all substance, no flash. Among the two-time Horses of the Year, he would have gone unnoticed if by some magic they all could have paraded onto the track together. He wasn't an imposing giant, like Forego, or a powerhouse like Curlin. He didn't have the celebrity of the Triple Crown or the panache of the big stogie. Everything about Wise Dan was understated. But remarkably effective.
A son of Wiseman's Ferry, whose main claim to fame as a racehorse was winning the Lone Star and West Virginia Derbies, Wise Dan was a blue collar sort of racehorse. No flashy pedigree there. Nor did he come with a gaudy price tag out of one of those glitzy sales where the zeros typically form a conga line. In fact, he was owned and campaigned by his breeder, Morton Fink. What a quaint concept.
Before retiring, Fink was a successful businessman in Chicago. Wise Dan was all business, too. He went to work everyday, didn't scream for attention and did his job. And his job was winning races. Nor was he particular. He won on turf, he won on dirt and he won on synthetic surfaces. He won stakes races sprinting; he won stakes races going long. And so he became an embodiment of reliability for fans and horseplayers alike. When he raced, he turned a Pick 4 into a Pick 3, a Pick 6 into a Pick 5.
But Wise Dan was at his best on turf, where he won 15 of his 16 races. His only turf loss came in the Shadwell Mile of 2011, where he raced wide throughout and finished nearly two lengths behind Gio Ponti, a champion turf horse himself.
After that defeat, Wise Dan won 17 of his last 19 races, with two seconds. Strangely enough, one of those rare losses showcased the fierce determination to do his job that made him so popular. It was neither his best distance nor his best surface, but Wise Dan wasn't particular about such details. At Churchill Downs, in the Stephen Foster Handicap of 2012, he raced wide and couldn't keep pace early with the speedy Nate's Mineshaft. In the stretch, Wise Dan momentarily drifted, and Nate's Mineshaft got away from him. But Wise Dan kept coming, kept working, and then he surged with great determination in final sixteenth of a mile to pass the early leader only to lose narrowly, by a head, to Ron The Greek, who had advanced through an opening along the inside and saved ground.
Wise Dan's greatest victory might have been in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Mile. He faced a formidable group. Excelebration, the winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, was making the final start of his career. The speedster Obviously loved the Santa Anita course. And then there was Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner. He dropped back early and ran into rush-hour traffic when he tried to advance. Wise Dan, meanwhile, stalked the speedster, angled out for the drive and ran right by, making it all look so easy, or rather workmanlike, which was, of course, his way of doing things. And that was why so many people, fans and horsemen alike, appreciated and revered him.