09/26/2013 11:28AM

Churchill Downs: Fort Larned expected to make a statement in Homecoming Classic

Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Larned is using the Homecoming Classic on Saturday as his final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race he won last year.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When it comes to winning major races, Ian Wilkes proudly emulates his mentor, Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger. There has been an unmistakable pattern to how it’s done, one that Nafzger frequently has said results in having a horse peak on the day of the big race – and not before.

Wilkes, who has been closely associated with Nafzger for almost a quarter-century, showed last year that he had learned his lessons well when Fort Larned captured the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Fort Larned – like Unbridled and Street Sense before him – had been defeated in his final prep coming into the biggest race of his life.

This topic will be quite relevant Saturday night at Churchill Downs when Fort Larned goes postward in the inaugural running of the $175,000 Homecoming Classic on an 11-race Downs After Dark program. Fort Larned is making his final start before returning to Santa Anita for the Nov. 2 BC Classic, and as an odds-on favorite Saturday, horseplayers clearly will be expecting him to win.

A victory would not fit the Nafzger/Wilkes pattern, at least if Fort Larned is to win the BC Classic again.

“I never thought about it that way,” Wilkes said with a laugh. “The main thing with this race is to get the right kind of race in him and move forward that way. Obviously, we’d like to win; it would take the heat off me a little bit. Actually, I’d just like to enjoy the horse while I still can. He’s only going to have these two more races before he retires.”

Fort Larned has won just one of four starts this year and comes off a fifth-place finish as the 6-5 favorite in the Aug. 3 Whitney at Saratoga.

“The horse is right where I want him now,” Wilkes said. “He’s in here to get a good race. He needs a good race. I really feel like I’m in a good spot with him. I’m where I want to be with him.”

Fort Larned, with Brian Hernandez Jr. back to ride, will start from post 5 in a field of seven older horses in the 1 1/8-mile Homecoming Classic, the richest and only newly created race among eight stakes at the new September meet at Churchill.

An earner of more than $4 million for owner and breeder Janis Whitham, Fort Larned looks like the dominant speed in the field. In the two most impressive efforts of his 23-race career – the BC Classic, in which he earned a 117 Beyer Speed Figure, and the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill in June, when he got a 115 – he led from the start.

“Brian knows the horse,” Wilkes said. “I don’t have to tell him anything. He’s just going to get out there and ride his race.”

If Fort Larned fails to live up to expectations, the most likely upsetter is Prayer for Relief (post 4, Ricardo Santana Jr.).

Prayer for Relief, trained by Steve Asmussen, has earned more than $1.5 million in 22 starts for Zayat Stables, much of it when being judiciously spotted in races such as his last two, which he won as the odds-on favorite: the Grade 3 Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows and the Governor’s Cup at Remington Park.

Golden Ticket would have been a contender, but trainer Ken McPeek cross-entered him at Santa Anita and plans to scratch him from the Homecoming to run in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes.

The rest of the Homecoming field is Pool Play, Windswept, Worldly, and Agent Di Nozzo. Windswept (post 2, Corey Lanerie) might have the most upside as a late-developing 5-year-old who earned his first triple-digit Beyer in his most recent start at Saratoga.

Weight assignments are based on allowance conditions, meaning Fort Larned will spot his rivals two to four pounds as the 125-pound highweight.

First post Saturday is 6 p.m. Eastern, with the Homecoming, the seventh race, set for 9:05 p.m. HRTV will have full coverage. General admission is $10.

The Homecoming will be directly followed by the Grade 3, $100,000 Jefferson Cup (race 8, post 9:39), which leads off a pick-four wager with a guaranteed pool of $100,000. The 11th and final race goes at 11:10.

Saturday is the second-to-last program of the 12-day meet, with first post for the Sunday finale set for 12:45 p.m. Live action on the Kentucky circuit then resumes Friday at Keeneland.