Updated on 11/06/2012 3:57PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Fort Larned holds off Mucho Macho Man after stretch-long duel

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Ian Wilkes learned his lessons well. Working for two decades under Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, Wilkes saw time and again, with horses like Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense, how to bring a horse, step by step, to a major goal. On Saturday at Santa Anita, it was time for Wilkes, and his horse Fort Larned to step up.

Both were ready. In the best performance of his life, Fort Larned took the track from his 11 rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and led the 1 1/4-mile race from start to finish, bravely holding off a stubborn Mucho Macho Man in a thrilling stretch drive to win the $5 million race by a half-length.

[BREEDERS' CUP 2012: Saturday results and video replays]

They were well clear of the rest of the field. Flat Out checked in third, 6 1/2 lengths farther back, and was followed, in order, by Ron the Greek, Richard’s Kid, Nonios, Game On Dude, Pool Play, Handsome Mike, To Honor and Serve, Brilliant Speed, and Alpha.

Fort Larned ($20.80), the fifth choice in the race, completed the distance on a fast main track in 2:00.11 after setting fractions of 23.20 seconds, 46.50, 1:10.12, and 1:34.66. He gave his jockey, Brian Hernandez Jr., who turned 27 Saturday, “the greatest birthday present ever.”

Fort Larned’s victory completed a tremendous weekend for horses based in New York and Kentucky, highlighted by victories Saturday by Wise Dan (Mile) and Groupie Doll (Filly and Mare Sprint), and Friday by Royal Delta (Ladies’ Classic). The win by Wise Dan, coupled with the disappointing performance by Game On Dude in the Classic, seems certain to bring Wise Dan the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.

Game On Dude completed a thoroughly forgettable weekend for his trainer, Bob Baffert, who was blanked with nine runners on Friday and Saturday, with only one of them, Executiveprivilege (Juvenile Fillies), finishing in the money.

Fort Larned, 4, began the year at Tampa Bay Downs, but steadily progressed through the year. Although he finished well back of Ron the Greek and Wise Dan in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June, he finished off the year with three wins in four starts, including the Whitney at Saratoga. He came into the Classic in prototypical Nafzger fashion, off a deceptively good third-place finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup that proved a means to an end.

“He was the master at pointing for a race,” Wilkes said of Nafzger, who is semi-retired but still trains a handful of horses for longtime clients. Working for him “you just had to take it all in,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes trains Fort Larned for Janis Whitham, who bred Fort Larned by sending her mare, Arlucea, to the sire E Dubai. Arlucea is a daughter of Bayakoa, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (now Ladies' Classic) who raced for Whitham and her late husband, Frank.

The Classic win was the eighth in 19 starts for Fort Larned, who Whitham said would remain in training next year.

Wilkes said he wanted Hernandez to make sure to get out of the gate cleanly and be assertive. “The most important thing I told Brian was to get out of the gate,” Wilkes said. “If we miss the break, we’re dead.”

He also told Hernandez, “Make a five-eighths-mile run. Don’t wait around.”

Fort Larned ran the final turn brilliantly, putting what proved to be a pivotal amount of daylight between he and Mucho Macho Man.

“The other horse just took off,” said Mike Smith, who rode Mucho Macho Man. “He has a quick turn of foot.”

Flat Out, ninth of 12 early, rallied belatedly for third, but was never a threat.

“Those two in front, they didn’t stop,” said Joel Rosario, who rode Flat Out. “I thought I was in a good position turning for home.”

Game On Dude, unbeaten in five previous starts at Santa Anita, broke a bit slowly, as he has done in the past, but worked his way into a striking position by the time the field turned up the backside. But he faded to finish seventh.

“I got him outside in the open,” said his jockey, Rafael Bejarano. “At the five-eighths, he was moving like he was going to win. But at the three-eighths, when I asked him, he was flat. I couldn’t understand it. Unbelievable.”