09/20/2012 12:18PM

Belmont: Wilkes emerges with rising star Fort Larned

Barbara D. Livingston
Ian Wilkes and his wife, Tracey, with Whitney winner Fort Larned, a leading contender in next Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The veterinarian comes under the Ian Wilkes shed row and starts the conversation this way: “Mate, that filly ...”

Wilkes is “mate,” just as Dr. Rick Fischer – or you or the next guy – is “mate” to Wilkes. It’s an Australian catch-all, a mostly endearing term of familiarity. Wilkes, 47, has become nearly everyone’s “mate” on the backside of Churchill Downs and the other racetracks he habituates. It’s a very good thing.

Long overshadowed by his mentor and surrogate dad, Carl Nafzger, Wilkes is emerging with his own identity in the often cynical world of racing. As the trainer of rising star Fort Larned, he is eligible to soon become more recognizable as a singular entity, a stand-on-your-own kind of guy.

Fort Larned, off a rousing victory in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap last month at Saratoga, will be one of the favorites next Saturday, Sept. 29, in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in New York. As usual, the Gold Cup figures as a major prep for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, to be run Nov. 3 at Santa Anita, where the spotlight doesn’t get much hotter.

“I don’t know how good this horse is,” said Wilkes, who has seen plenty of good ones alongside Nafzger, who won the Kentucky Derby with Unbridled in 1990 and Street Sense in 2007. “But he keeps improving, and that’s the scary thing.”

The development of Fort Larned, a 4-year-old colt bred and owned by Janis Whitham, is typical of the philosophy Wilkes shares with Nafzger in allowing a horse to develop at its own pace. It wasn’t until Fort Larned made his 10th career start that Wilkes began allowing himself to think big things. Fort Larned won a Churchill allowance race by nearly seven lengths Nov. 27, 2011, turning a proverbial corner and putting him on a path that has him prominently mentioned as one of the top older horses in North America.

“He’s getting better all the time,” Wilkes said. “Mentally, he has a swagger about him. It’s like he’s gone from a boy to a man. He has a presence about him now, a confidence.”

A bay colt by the Mr. Prospector sire E Dubai, Fort Larned began his career by winning just one of six starts, leading Wilkes to try to make him into a grass horse. It didn’t work. Switched back to the dirt by accident – his allowance win last November was rained off the turf – he since has won 5 of 8, including three graded races: the Skip Away at Gulfstream Park, the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows, and the Whitney.

His Whitney victory at 7-1 under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. came after the colt stalked the pace from a perfect outside position and zoomed to an insurmountable lead after turning into the stretch.

“It’s been kind of like Cigar,” Wilkes said with a laugh, referring to the 1995-96 Horse of the Year. “I kept running him on the grass not knowing what I had on the dirt as he was getting older.

“He’s got a great turn of speed,” he said. “You’ve just got to give him his head. I kind of messed up in a few spots with him before, but I won’t any more. I know him now. He’s going to run his race in the Jockey Club.”

Fort Larned actually remained in New York when Wilkes brought most of his horses back to Kentucky from Saratoga earlier this month. Wilkes has permitted his New York assistants, Peggy Dunleavy and Kate Merritt, to oversee the colt’s training at Belmont. Fort Larned has had three rat-a-tat works on Sept. 9, 12, and 17 – unconventional, yes, for horsemen outside of the Nafzger/Wilkes school – and Wilkes intended to be on hand for his final prerace work and in the days leading into the race.

For Wilkes, the ascent of Fort Larned is characteristic of his training record. Wilkes’s statistics show a strike rate of 2 percent with first-time starters (6 for 229), but that jumps to 11 percent (25 for 215 and a $1.75 ROI) with second starters. His stakes (25 wins, 13 percent, $1.80 ROI) and graded stakes records (16 wins, 14 percent, $2.27 ROI) are solid, too, reflecting the goals of developing young, inexperienced horses into high-end performers. Not counting all the greats that Nafzger had, his best horses to date have been Warrior’s Reward, Capt. Candyman Can, Bearpath, Miss Isella, and Court Folly, and some of his current stakes-caliber runners include Neck ‘n Neck, Island Bound, and Sweet and Lovely.

LIFETIME PPs: Fort Larned's past performances (PDF)

Although he has many horses at his disposal, Wilkes has never been the leading trainer at a major meet. He typically carries a sizable number of maidens, many homebreds, and churning numbers is not the priority.

“Our clients want us to take our time with the horses, see what their strengths are and where they fit best,” he said. “That takes a lot of individual care and attention.”

Wilkes’s commitment to his clients and Nafzger’s philosophies have helped lead to a seamless, almost unnoticeable transition in keeping a major stable major. When Ian and Tracey, his wife of 21 years, first came from their native Australia in 1989, no one could have predicted that one day Wilkes would take over a stable overseen by a popular trainer and keep it humming at a proficient level.

Moreover, the Wilkeses have become paragons of what is good with the game in regard to family, work ethic, patience, loyalty, and minding your own business. Extraordinary bonds, both professional and personal, have been formed among them and Nafzger and his wife, Wanda.

“It’s been almost seven years now, and I’m proud of him, proud of what he’s done,” said Nafzger, who won the Eclipse Award for top trainer in 1990 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2008. “He’s always been a good horseman. When you take over in the way he did, there’s always going to be a lot of things to learn and go through, no matter what. It’s his outfit now and I’m tickled for him. I’ve learned a lot off him and he’s learned a lot off me and we’re teaching each other all the time. I think he’s graduated now after the Whitney. When you develop a horse like Fort Larned to win a race as big as the Whitney, that’s quite an achievement.”

Both Ian and Tracey Wilkes, now 46, were exercise riders when starting with Nafzger in their early 20s. The couple went back to Australia for a brief period and got married before returning to the United States for good and starting a family. As time went on, Nafzger, now 71, knew he wanted to ease out of day-to-day training and into retirement while giving the Wilkeses something to fall back on. In the fall of 2005, Nafzger announced that most of the stable’s horses would run in Wilkes’s name, except for longtime clients Jim Tafel, who owned Street Sense, and Bentley Smith, who has since died.

“It says my name on the program, but it’s really Tracey and me, with Carl’s blessing,” said Ian Wilkes. “If she didn’t want to come here years ago, we wouldn’t have done it. We make all our major decisions together.”

Understandably, Wilkes has adopted many of the training methods advocated by Nafzger in his 1994 book, “Traits of a Winner.”

“You want horses to develop,” said Wilkes. “People make a big deal about horses winning first out. I don’t care about that. I really don’t. Percentages and statistics are ruining the game. I’m all about the horse.”

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Well before dawn on a recent Sunday morning, Wilkes pulled into the Churchill stable area after the 15-minute drive from home. He got a couple of five-gallon buckets out of his car trunk, then spent a few minutes discussing the upcoming morning’s activities with one of his newest employees – his son, Brodie – and longtime Nafzger-Wilkes foreman Carlos Tinajero before trooping a couple of hundred yards to the edge of the backstretch to watch his first set train.

“We’ve got quite a few walkers today,” said Wilkes. “Should be an easy morning.”

In truth, another long day lay ahead. With 28 horses at Churchill, another 36 at the Skylight training center some 25 miles east of downtown Louisville with assistant Bob Tucker, and nine more at Belmont with Dunleavy and Merritt, Wilkes always has something going on. He winters at Palm Meadows in south Florida, with a second string at Tampa Bay Downs, and he goes to Saratoga for the better part of the summer. His routine in Kentucky is to be on hand early at Churchill, leave by about 8, and spend the rest of the morning at Skylight and on the phone. But at this particular time of year, with yearlings to be eyed and bid on at the Keeneland sales, there are also the afternoons and evenings traveling to and from Lexington.

Such is the life of a big-time trainer. The Wilkeses have lived in the same house in the Louisville community of St. Matthews for 12 years, raising their two children. In what spare time he has, Ian likes to golf and follow American football (he has Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on his fantasy football team and said he “gambled” on the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson at running back). Tracey, who has worked as a guest-services representative for Churchill during their race meets since 1999, enjoys staying fit with workouts at a local gym when she is not working mornings as an exercise rider.

Their extended families both are still in Australia – Ian’s on the east coast, Tracey’s on the west.

“We went back for a visit about a year and a half ago,” said Wilkes. “Before that, it’d been six years. Some of our family comes over here once in a while too, but it’s hard. Tracey keeps up pretty well on Facebook, but it’s not the same as being around all the time. It’s a sacrifice we make to enjoy the kind of life we’ve built here in America.”

Family time on holidays such as Thanksgiving or Christmas invariably has meant spending time with the Nafzgers. The Wilkeses’ two young adult children – daughter Shelby, 22, and Brodie, 19 – have been a source of joy to the Nafzgers, who did not have children during their 44 years of marriage.

“Obviously, our relationship with Carl and Wanda has been more than business,” Wilkes said. “They’ve been like parents to us and like grandparents to our kids.”

Nafzger, who lives just a few miles from Wilkes, still comes out fairly regularly in the mornings to Churchill. He and Wanda also travel extensively, often to see the stable’s horses in action. They are achieving their long-term goal: enjoying the fruits of a lifetime in the horse business while getting their kicks from what Wilkes is accomplishing. Nafzger remains the program trainer for the Tafel horses, although that’s something of a technicality.

“There’s no ego involved me in me trying to say, ‘No, no, this is my horse, not Carl’s,’ ” Wilkes said. “It just isn’t like that. I’m so grateful for what he’s done and how well respected he is in the game. I’ve never looked at it as me coming out from behind his shadow. I’ve always been very comfortable where I am because my time will come.”

Besides Whitham and Tafel, the owners who have been mainstays with Nafzger and Wilkes include Bob Lothenbach, A. Stevens Miles, Bob Manfuso, Randy Bloch, and Marylou Whitney. All are proponents of the Nafzger-Wilkes approach.

“We inherited Ian from Carl after about two years, and it was our choice to keep him,” said Whitham, an 80-year-old Kansas native and resident who raced such standouts as Bayakoa and Tight Spot with her late husband, Frank, a prominent cattleman who died in December 1993.

“Ian does a really good job of communicating,” she said. “He does that with all of his people. I think he kind of likes to have extended family for his owners, if you will. He doesn’t have many hang-ups and I’d have to call him a hands-on horseman. I want to say he’s quite a nice, respectful young man and he gets along with my son Clay, who goes to the races with me quite a bit and helps me handle our horse business. All my comments about Ian would be favorable.”

Whitham, whose own family has a rich history dating back four generations in the western region of Kansas, named Fort Larned for an old U.S. Army fort on the Santa Fe Trail, established in 1859.

To illustrate the longevity and prestige that Whitham has enjoyed in Thoroughbred racing, the second dam of Fort Larned is Bayakoa, the Argentine-bred superstar best known for her Eclipse Awards as champion filly or mare in 1989 and 1990 and for her emotional triumph over the ill-fated Go for Wand in the 1990 BC Distaff at Belmont.

In May 1997, Bayakoa produced a Broad Brush filly, Arlucea, who 11 years later produced Fort Larned as her fifth of six foals to race. Bayakoa died of laminitis later in 1997.

“Mrs. Whitham has so much history in the game,” said Wilkes. “I mean, Bayakoa was one of the greatest mares to ever race.”

Wilkes said Whitham is much like his other owners in that she “understands and enjoys the game from A to Z, from the matings and breeding to everything about the racing.

“She is uncanny in the way she follows everything and how much knowledge she has,” he said. “Working for her is so enjoyable because of how she understands the highs and lows that you’re bound to have.”

This working relationship is a perfect example of the loyalty and unwavering commitment that Wilkes has for the people and principles he cares about. Unexcitable, dryly humorous, deferential, dedicated, and ever humble, he has integrated his understated personality and Aussie charm with those core values to reach the threshold of a new stage of his career.

For Wilkes, the prospect of winning a major race such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup and heading to Santa Anita with a major threat for the BC Classic is a very exciting one. Yes, he has been in the Derby winner’s circle twice, but as much as he appreciates what Nafzger has done for him and his family, winning the Classic in his own name would be something altogether different.

“Ooh, you don’t want to imagine that yet, mate,” he said. “But it would be something special.”

Wilkes's career statistics

2012 282 34 12 40 1.3781 $2,237,509
2011 355 51 14 40 1.7719 1,607,003
2010 277 26 9 32 1.1838 1,476,691
2009 307 50 16 45 1.7512 2,781,963
2008 288 44 15 44 1.6334 1,696,554
2007 162 20 12 37 1.7161 803,775
2006 202 34 16 47 1.7921 1,358,558
2005 1 0 0 0 0 2,530
TOTAL 1,874 259 13 41 1.5974 $11,964,583