Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos/Chelsea Durand
The words don’t come easy.
What do you say about a horse that did virtually everything there is to do, and did it time and time again?
Yesterday, it was announced that the eight-year-old gelding Wise Dan has been retired after suffering a small tendon tear while training for a comeback in the September 13th Woodbine Mile (gr. I). The announcement brought to a close the career of one of racing’s greatest runners; a horse that–quite simply–achieved almost everything there is to achieve.
What do you say about a horse like that?
You could talk about the records he set–there were many–or the weights he carried to victory, which were back-breaking by modern standards. You could talk about his easy wins–he was so talented that he romped to tremendous victories on many occasions–or you could talk about his close calls, when he had to dig deep, find more, battle back, and show off his grit to win by a nose.
You could talk for days about his success in the Breeders’ Cup–he won the Mile twice, defeating large fields of talented horses on both occasions. You could talk about his two Horse of the Year titles, and his six overall Eclipse awards. You could talk about his graded stakes wins on turf, dirt, and Polytrack; you could talk about the $7,552,920 that he earned; you could talk about his 23 victories from 31 starts.
During a career that spanned five years, Wise Dan did virtually everything a horse can do, earning a reputation as one of the greatest horses of all time. Not just a great miler, or a great gelding, but one of the greatest of all. When the time comes, his induction into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame will be a formality; one more award and one more honor for a horse that is a legend in his own time.
But numbers and awards can’t measure what Wise Dan meant to the sport of horse racing… and what he meant to his fans.
For horse racing, Wise Dan was the gift that kept on giving; a champion that came back year after year to give racing fans a hero to cheer for. He was there when Super Saver won the 2010 Kentucky Derby–he won an allowance race on the Derby undercard. He was there when Zenyatta lost the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic–he had finished sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He was there when three-time Eclipse award winner Gio Ponti won for the last time in the 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile–Wise Dan finished fourth in his only defeat on grass.
When Kentucky Derby/Preakness hero I’ll Have Another was retired with an injury in mid-2012, Wise Dan was there to give fans the excitement they needed, winning 5 of 6 starts en route to Horse of the Year. When three different horses won the Triple Crown races in 2013, and when two of them never won again, Wise Dan gave the sport an infusion of excitement as he paraded on and won 6 of 7 races to garner a second Horse of the Year title. And after two near-perfect seasons, he finally achieved perfection in 2014, going 4-for-4 despite having his campaign interrupted by emergency colic surgery.
And that’s just what Wise Dan mean to racing–he meant much, much more to his fans. When Wise Dan made his debut on February 26th, 2010, I had started writing about horse racing less than two months prior. Thus, for as long as I’ve been covering the sport of horse racing, Wise Dan has been there… training, racing, setting records, and winning awards. I picked him to win the 2010 Phoenix Stakes (gr. III) at odds of 6-1, and when he delivered with a gritty half-length victory, I became a fan and climbed on board the Wise Dan bandwagon.
I never could have guessed how long the ride would last.
Some will remember Wise Dan for his records–his 1:31.75 mile in the 2013 Woodbine Mile, his 1:31.78 clocking in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile, his 117 Beyer in the 2012 Ben Ali Stakes. Others will remember him for his Eclipse awards, or his Breeders’ Cup Mile victories.
But I will remember Wise Dan for the things that can’t be measured. I’ll remember the sight of him charging through the rain in the 2013 Firecracker Handicap, squeezing through a narrow opening while slipping and stumbling in the homestretch to defeat Lea by two lengths; I’ll remember his blazing morning workouts from the peak of his glory, when he would achieve race-worthy times while under restraint; I’ll remember his first race back from colic surgery, when he won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga by a nose after looking beaten at the top of the stretch.
And perhaps most of all, I’ll remember the final race of his career in the 2014 Shadwell Turf Mile. After his surgery, and after his hard-fought win in the Bernard Baruch, there were many that thought Wise Dan had finally reached the end of his reign. There were many that thought he was too old; many that thought Father Time would catch up with Wise Dan and allow other horses to do the same.
For the first six furlongs of the race, it looked like they would be proven correct. Facing seven rivals, Wise Dan got off to a slow start, then settled farther off the pace than usual through slow fractions. Rounding the final turn, he was forced to go very wide, and entering the final two furlongs, he still had nearly four lengths to make up on the leaders.
An ordinary horse–or even a very good horse–would have been beaten under the circumstances. But one last time, Wise Dan showed the world that he wasn’t an ordinary horse. Reaching out with giant strides, Wise Dan started closing the gap, and as the crowd cheered and the racing world watched in awe, Wise Dan took the lead close to home and won by a length.
One last time, he had proven his greatness.
Thanks for the memories, Wise Dan.