01/08/2013 6:45PM

2012 Eclipse Awards: Fort Larned

photo by: Susie Raisher

Behold the virtues of patience. It took Fort Larned 13 races to become known outside his own barn and 17 races to be recognized as a horse of national consequence. Then came his 19th start, in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park, when he faced the toughest challenge of his evolving career.

The result? He might have been late to the party, but when he finally arrived he lit up the room.
Fort Larned’s thoroughly professional front-running victory in the $5 million Classic was arguably the most memorable performance by an older horse during a highly competitive year. Not only did Fort Larned and his jockey, Brian Hernandez, turn back Mucho Macho Man and Mike Smith that day by a half-length, but they also left in their wake the winners of nearly every significant 2012 race for the older male division.

Mucho Macho Man had won the Suburban and was a close second in the Woodward. Third-place Flat Out took the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Fourth-place Ron the Greek won the Santa Anita Handicap and beat Wise Dan in the Stephen Foster. Seventh-place Game On Dude won the Hollywood Gold Cup and just missed in the Pacific Classic. Tenth-place To Honor and Serve won the Woodward.

Coupled with his victory over Flat Out and Ron the Greek in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, Fort Larned entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a record at least near par with his rivals. In winning the day, he might have done enough to secure the Eclipse Award as champion older male as well, just as nine of the 18 older male Classic winners had done before him.

If nothing else, Fort Larned was at least in keeping with the family tradition of his owner and breeder, Janis Whitham. The Classic winner is a son of the Mr. Prospector stallion E Dubai out of the Broad Brush mare Arlucea. She, in turn, was foaled by the Argentine mare Bayakoa, who won the 1989 and 1990 versions of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff for Whitham and her husband, Frank Whitham, who was killed in a small plane crash in 1993. In 1998 Bayakoa was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Trainer Ian Wilkes, who made his bones running the Carl Nafzger barn, had no choice but to take his time with Fort Larned. The colt ran once late in his 2-year-old season and nine times as a 3-year-old without causing as much as a ripple on the national waters. The Eclipse Award jury has been instructed to disregard that testimony, however, since the 2012 version of Fort Larned was a whole different brand of beast.

At first, Wilkes played his cards close, sending out Fort Larned to win the Skip Away at Gulfstream Park and finish second at Churchill Downs in the Alysheba. Fort Larned then got a rude welcome to the big time in the Stephen Foster, also at Churchill, when he was parked wide and bounced around through most of the nine furlongs. His rider, Julien Leparoux, finally wrapped up to save his horse for another day.

That day came just two weeks later when Fort Larned won the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows in a three-length waltz, an effort that gave Wilkes the confidence to dive back into the deep end of the pool in the Whitney, on the first weekend of August at Saratoga. The horse rewarded his people with a 1 1/4-length score.

After that Fort Larned ran a distant third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but in the end it might have been a good thing. Both Blame (2010) and Drosselmeyer (2011) spun their wheels in the Gold Cup before running the best races of their lives to win Classic.

The same can be said of Fort Larned – at least so far – since he is scheduled to keep running in 2013.