Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan will be in action at Churchill Downs on Saturday night, the six-year-old gelding the overwhelming 2-5 morning line favorite in the $150,000 Firecracker Handicap (G2).
The gelding comes into the race riding a six-race winning streak and was assigned top weight of 128 pounds, spotting his rivals between 11 and 15 pounds. The highest impost the 15-time winner has carried is 126 pounds and it is unusual for a racing secretary to assign top horses more in this era.
“I did 128 (pounds) here with Wise Dan and 128 on Curlin in the (2008) Stephen Foster. I’ve done several 125s, but for horses that have actually shown up in the entries, 128 is the most,” stated Churchill Downs’ Director of Racing Ben Huffman on the track’s website.
The great race mare Zenyatta carried 129 pounds twice in her career, both times victories in the Vanity Handicap. She actually won the race three times, carrying 124 pounds in 2008 and then 129 pounds in 2009 and 2010.
One of the reasons top horses often don't carry much weight in handicap races is that racing secretaries are afraid if they assign too much weight to a horse; the connections will skip the race and look elsewhere.
“We don’t weight horses to get them beat. We weight horses to give other horses a chance, especially against champions,” Huffman added.
Wise Dan has won 15 of 22 career races with earnings of over $4 million, and comes into the race having won six in a row and nine of his last ten starts. The lone loss was a tough beat in the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) last June at Churchill Downs, beaten a head by Ron the Greek.
A field of eight was entered in the Firecracker, but trainer Tom Proctor is expected to scratch Corporate Jungle which would leave six foes to line up against the champ.
Some are questioning the decision of trainer Charles Lopresti to run Wise Dan in a Grade 2 purse with a purse of just $150,000, including Joe Drape of The New York Times.
“The Firecracker just fits our schedule,“ Lopresti stated to Marty McGee of The Daily Racing Form. “It’s something to tick us over until we run in some of these bigger races again.”
Can the champion get upset on Saturday night under the Twin Spires?
The horse with the best shot of pulling off the upset is the Al Stall trained Lea (4-1) who is coming off a victory against optional claimers in the slop on June 1. The win was his first start in 6 ½ months. On turf the colt won the Commonwealth (G3) over the Churchill Downs turf course last November. The colt will carry 117 pounds, getting 11 pounds form the favorite.
Ol Army (20-1) is going to be a longshot in the field, but has some early speed and is expected to be on or near the front. He was no match for Wise Dan in last year’s Shadwell Turf Mile (G1), finishing 17 lengths back at odds of 130-1, but the gelding is coming into the race off a win on turf at Indiana Downs.
Trainer Steve Asmussen, who is second in the trainer’s standings to Mike Maker, sends out Daddy Nose Best (15-1) who has a graded stakes win on dirt and a synthetic surface. His last win on turf came back in 2011 at Churchill Downs against first level allowance company.
Completing the field are long shots Dimension (30-1), Finnegan’s Wake (12-1) and Seruni (15-1).
The Firecracker is one of 11 races on the ‘Downs After Dark” program that gets underway with a first race post time of 6:00 ET.