If there was ever a time to catch two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan at less than his best, Saturday might be the day. The marvelous seven-year-old gelding, whose season was temporarily halted in May after emergency surgery was performed following a bout of colic, returns to action in the Grade 2, $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga.
On paper, Wise Dan looks as he always does -- formidable. A winner in 13 of 14 career starts on turf, including two editions of the Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga, the Morton Fink-owned chestnut showed earlier in the year that he remains difficult to dethrone. Kaigan and Seek Again each took a shot, in the Maker's Mark Mile and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, respectively, in Kentucky last spring, but the dual grass champion prevailed both times, but by margins of only three-quarters of a length and a head.
The connections of Wise Dan, satisfied with the way he's recovered from his illness, have been nothing but upbeat about his return.
"He's gotten back to where he was; he's dragging his rider around there," trainer Charlie LoPresti said. "His works have been really good, and they've been basically not even asking him to do that. He's just been doing it in hand.
"I think he's back to himself again. It took him a while to get back. We were probably two works short of the Fourstardave. Once we got him up here, I realized I was trying to play catch-up to make that race and this makes more sense. I can't say that any race at Saratoga is easy, but this is an easier spot, I think, for him to come back in."
Until the race is run, though, there might be some reasons for skepticism following such a serious setback. In addition to the health issue, handicappers might be wary that Wise Dan did not earn a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating in either of his earlier victories, a possible sign of modest decline. Wise Dan will also have to tote 127 pounds in his comeback, at least eight pounds more than the rest of his rivals.
"I want to get him started. I'm not going to jump off the roof if he gets beat half a length or a length, something like that," LoPresti said. "He's been beaten before, so that doesn't worry me. He got beat in the Shadwell Mile and everybody started writing him off, but he got beat by a horse that got on the front end and just stole the race."
The 1 1/16-mile Baruch, over the inner turf, is likely Wise Dan's lone race before a return trip to his beloved Keeneland for the Shadwell Turf Mile in October. LoPresti recently said a shot at a threepeat in next month's Woodbine Mile is not high on the agenda.
Wise Dan should get plenty of pace to chase in the Baruch. Five Iron, upset winner of the Fort Marcy in May, shortens up after faltering in the 10-furlong Manhattan and nine-furlong Nijinsky, the latter at Woodbine where he set an unsustainable six-furlong split of 1:09 4/5.
Sayaad, who breaks to his immediate right, also has some early foot. He weakened to fifth after chasing a fast pace set by Silver Max in the August 9 Fourstardave, but looked good taking the $144,000 Forbidden Apple over a yielding Belmont turf one prior.
"We could be on an uncontested lead, but Wise Dan is keen and off a long layoff; he could be breathing down our throats or he could be on the lead," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Sayaad. "I'm hoping we can be on the lead, but if there's other speed we can lay second. He did rate (in the Fourstardave), we just need to time it right."
Two veterans with back class -- Boisterous and Optimizer -- give the race some added pizzazz, although neither has struck gold in graded company in some time. Boisterous peaked last year at the Grade 1 level in the Man o' War, but has just an allowance victory in five outings since joining the Todd Pletcher barn.
Optimizer, a multiple Grade 3 winner on turf, has been up the track in his last four outings dating back more than a year. Formerly with D. Wayne Lukas, the Calumet Farm-owned five-year-old will be saddled here by Jose Fernandez.
Also lining up is last year's Bernard Baruch runner-up Paris Vegas, who adds blinkers after a sixth-place finish in the $100,000 Lure on August 2; Bio Pro, who placed in both the Forbidden Apple and Lure in his last two starts; multiple Grade 2-placed Sky Blazer; and the allowance-class North Star Boy.
Entered for the main track only is Lea, last seen taking the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream in February. With little rain expected before post time, the Bill Mott trainee is more likely to return in the $100,000 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs next Saturday.
Red Rifle, winner of the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston last winter, is also entered for the main track only.
The final Saturday of Saratoga's meet includes three other graded stakes, including the Grade 2, $300,000 Prioress for three-year-old fillies going six furlongs.
Grade 2 queen Miss Behaviour, runner-up in the Test and Victory Ride in her last two outings, faces several Test also-rans here: Grade 3 winner Sweet Whiskey, runner-up in the Acorn and Beaumont; Southern Honey, an impressive winner of the Winning Colors at Churchill Downs two back; and Tea Time, who failed to handle the rise in class after taking minor stakes at Parx and Delaware Park.
"I think clearly everybody feels six furlongs is better for her than seven (furlongs), said trainer Phil Schoenthal of Miss Behaviour. "She's undefeated at six (furlongs) and has never won past the distance."
Other leading contenders include Princess Violet, a distant second to Untapable in the Mother Goose last time, and the stakes debuting Thirteen Arrows, an allowance winner at Delaware Park for trainer Larry Jones in her latest effort.