Wise Dan could probably still race, given time to heal from the small tendon tear discovered this morning. But it is better this way. He will not leave the track as a sad shell of his former self or---worse---in a horse ambulance. He leaves racing with the memory of his devastating turn of foot and his gritty determination undiminished, the same qualities that made him a two-time Horse of the Year.
Some may criticize the gelding for what he did not do. Unlike some great champions, he did not "sprint with the sprinters and stay with the stayers." He could, perhaps, have been more than he was. Nonetheless, owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles LoPresti made the decision to make a specialist of him, and who can really quibble? For three consecutive years, he was the best horse in North America at a 8 to 9 furlongs on turf. For two of those years, he was so superb at what he did that he was considered the best American horse in training.
In truth, most of the horses that have earned Horse of the Year honors in the last few decades were specialists; their specialty was simply 9 to 10 furlongs on dirt. And few have dominated their slice of the racing pie the way Dan dominated his. Of Wise Dan's 23 career wins, 10 were Grade 1 races at 8 or 9 furlongs on grass. Just for a bit of spice, he threw in the 2011 Clark Handicap (USA-I) on dirt. He also ran sub-1:32 miles twice, setting course records at Santa Anita and Woodbine, and put up a mark of 1:46.63 for 9 furlongs on Keeneland's Polytrack.
Wise Dan did not earn an official championship in 2014, but he saved the best for last anyway. After emergency colic surgery knocked him out of summer racing, the gelding returned with a nose victory in the Bernard Baruch Handicap (USA-IIT). Although he conceded 8 to 13 pounds to his field, people still questioned whether he was the same horse he had been before.
Wise Dan answered those questions in the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes (USA-IT) at Keeneland. Dead last in the early going, he had five lengths to make up at the top of the stretch. Anyone who thought he was done for didn't know Wise Dan. Down went his head, eyes flashing and nostrils flared. Out went his stride, quickening to a furious tempo. At the wire he was a length in front and pulling away.
It wasn't intended to be his swan song, but few horses have ever managed a better exit. Whether it was official or not, he went out as a champion, his knockout punch as hard and sharp as ever, his fighting spirit undiminished.
What happens next is up to Fink, LoPresti and Wise Dan. A second career may be in the offing, or a life of leisure, perhaps at the Kentucky Horse Park. But nothing can diminish what Wise Dan has accomplished or what he was: a champion in every sense of the word.
Thanks for the memories, Dan.