10/09/2013 2:20PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Fort Larned readies for repeat bid

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Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Larned, who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at 9-1, will enter this year’s edition off a win in the Homecoming Classic.

Fort Larned is set to defend his title in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita following his recent victory in the inaugural Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs, and his trainer, Ian Wilkes, believes he can improve off that final prep.

Fort Larned had to miss the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga at the end of August with tightness in his hind end, causing him to lose training time. Wilkes said that while Fort Larned was good enough to win the Homecoming Classic, he was not at his best.

“We knew he wasn’t 100 percent because of the training time he had missed,” Wilkes said. “He missed about eight or nine days, so he had to need the race. But if he didn’t run in that race, he would not have been ready to go to the Breeders’ Cup.”

The original plan was to run in the Woodward, then either the Homecoming Classic or the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. But after scratching out of the Woodward, Fort Larned went to Churchill Downs, where Wilkes is based, and Wilkes figured it was prudent to remain home. He said the Woodward situation might have been a blessing in disguise since, had Fort Larned run, it would have been on a sloppy track.

“Things happen for a reason,” Wilkes said. “Maybe it was a good thing he missed that race. We just brought him home. I was able to watch him at Churchill, and it made it easier having him here, with the sales going on at Keeneland. We were able to keep a close eye on him. Fortunately, Churchill had that race. Otherwise, we would have had to ship.”

[BREEDERS’ CUP 2013: See DRF’s top contenders]

Now, Fort Larned will make just one trip this fall, back to Santa Anita for the Classic.

Wilkes is a disciple of Carl Nafzger, the Hall of Fame trainer for whom Wilkes was a longtime assistant. During that tenure, Wilkes saw Nafzger engineer top performances in major races from the likes of Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense, among others, after moderate preps. Wilkes showed that he had learned his lessons well a year ago, when Fort Larned was primed for his best in the Classic after finishing third as the favorite in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was 9-1 in the Classic.

In other Classic developments:

◗ Trainer Todd Pletcher said the Classic is his preferred spot for Grade 2 Kelso Invitational winner Graydar, with the Dirt Mile a backup plan. “I’d like to run him in the Classic,” Pletcher said Tuesday. Upcoming works, scheduled to begin Sunday, will determine which path is taken with Graydar.

◗ Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice also is scheduled to work Sunday, though Pletcher said he could adjust the work schedule of his Breeders’ Cup horses depending on the weather.