Just before the start, Wise Dan wasn't acting like himself. He reared in the gate, forcing John Velazquez to remount after the two-time defending Horse of the Year was backed out. In his first race since undergoing emergency colic surgery, was the big gelding saying he didn't want to be there?
Yet when the gates opened for Saturday's Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap, the Saratoga crowd saw the same old Wise Dan, the superstar who won his previous 12 races on the turf. At the finish it was lucky No. 13 as the 7-year-old held off 29-1 shot Optimizer by a nose. Three and a half months after a surgeon sliced open his belly, Wise Dan pulled out a gut-wrencher.
It didn't matter that he hadn't raced since May 3 and had to carry 127 pounds, 11 more than Optimizer. "Wise Dan did it!" race caller Tom Durkin said, and the fans saluted the champion with an ovation.
Low-key trainer Charles LoPresti was overjoyed. "He's been through a lot. With all the weight, off that layoff, he's an amazing horse,'' he said. "Not many horses would be able to overcome that. That's why he's the two-time Horse of the Year, and that's why after this he should be the three-time Horse of the Year.''
That proclamation was a bit premature, as LoPresti will admit upon reflection, because Wise Dan must win more major stakes to become the first three-peater since Forego (1974-76).
The 4-5 favorite is 22-for-30 lifetime, and an amazing 14-for-15 on grass, after running 1 1/16 miles on firm ground. His time of 1:39.08 was only .17 of a second off the course record set in 1991 by Fourstardave.
"When I got to the eighth pole, I didn't think I'd get it,'' Velazquez said. "He was getting tired, but he showed he has the heart of a champion.''
Itsmyluckyday wins Woodward. Itsmyluckyday won a long stretch duel with pacesetter Moreno to take the Woodward by a half-length. Jockey Paco Lopez and trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. had to sweat out an inquiry for bumping before the colt's first Grade I win was made official.
Plesa added blinkers to help Itsmyluckyday stay closer to Moreno, to whom he finished second here Aug. 3 in the Whitney. "I think the blinkers helped,'' he said, "but I think it was a combination of things.''
Itsmyluckyday ($7.70) ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.94.
Notes & quotes: Palace ($10.60) won his second Grade I of the meeting for trainer Linda Rice, rallying inside for Cornelio Velasquez to take the 7-furlong Forego Stakes by 3½ lengths . . . Stonetastic ($13) led throughout for Lopez in an 8½-length romp in the Grade II, 6-furlong Prioress for 3-year-old fillies.