06/15/2013 9:42PM

Churchill Downs: Fort Larned proves uncatchable in Stephen Foster

Reed Palmer Photography/Churchill Downs
Fort Larned, with Brian Hernandez aboard, misses the track record for 1 1/8 miles by .17 of a second in his Stephen Foster romp.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rendering his two season-opening efforts a distant memory, Fort Larned returned to his Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning form Saturday night with a dominating wire-to-wire triumph in the 32nd running of the Grade 1, $536,300 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Fort Larned, trained by Ian Wilkes for owner-breeder Janis Whitham, sped to an open lead into the first turn of the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster and never looked back, widening at the whim of jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. when prevailing by 6 1/4 lengths in what is widely regarded as the leadoff race to the second half of the North American racing season.

Fort Larned returned $8.60 as fourth choice in a field of six after finishing in 1:47.45, second in stakes history only to the 1:47.28 by Victory Gallop in 1999.

“He’s back,” a grinning Wilkes said upon being greeted by a very happy mob in the winner’s circle.

Golden Ticket, the 11-1 fifth choice, rallied steadily to be a clear second, four lengths before late-closing Ron the Greek (3-1). Successful Dan (5-2) was fourth, Pool Play (35-1) was fifth, and Take Charge Indy, the 9-5 favorite who gave closest chase to Fort Larned most of the way, faded to last.

Fort Larned won the 2012 BC Classic at Santa Anita by leading throughout, holding on grimly to win by a half-length. This one was much easier – and perhaps nearly as satisfying – since it followed two off-the-board finishes at Gulfstream Park (when he tossed Hernandez at the start) and Oaklawn Park (when he was a dull fifth) to start his 5-year-old campaign.

“He was just cruising,” said Hernandez, who doled out the speed in splits of 23.69 seconds, 46.96, and 1:10.48 over the fast going. After Fort Larned turned for home with about a two-length lead, “I hit him left-handed like I usually do to make him switch over to his right lead. And off he went.

“When he worked on Monday, I knew we had a great chance. We talked it over and thought the best plan was just to take it to ‘em. The thing to do was let him be fast. He’s a fast horse, and that’s what he showed tonight.”

The Foster is the first Win and You’re In event of the year in North America toward the two-day Breeders’ Cup championships at Santa Anita, meaning Fort Larned now has an automatic expenses-paid berth to defend his title in the $5 million BC Classic on Nov. 2.

Wilkes said before the Foster that he was likely to prep Fort Larned for the Classic by running in two or three straight races in New York: the Whitney and/or Woodward at Saratoga, followed by the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.

However, “I’m just going to enjoy this tonight and think about all that some other day,” he said.

The Foster romp also helped erase the poor effort Fort Larned gave last year in this race when finishing last of eight, 12 lengths behind the victorious Ron the Greek.

“This was huge for Ian after what happened here last year and because it’s our hometown track,” said Hernandez.

Fort Larned, a bay horse by E Dubai, now has won 9 of 22 career starts. He earned $329,181, lifting his bankroll to $4,031,417. His margin of victory was second in stakes history only to the 6 1/2-length win by Street Cry in 2002.

The $2 exacta (2-1) paid $69.40; the $1 trifecta (2-1-3) returned $208.40; and the 10-cent superfecta (2-1-3-6) was worth $32.35.

Ontrack attendance was not immediately available, although the evening had every bit the feel of a big crowd, perhaps more than 25,000.

 Earlier in the evening, the connections of 2013 Derby winner Orb were given their engraved trophies in winner’s circle presentations. They were jockey Joel Rosario, trainer Shug McGaughey, and Daisy Phipps Pulito, the daughter of Ogden Mills Phipps, who bred and owns Orb in partnership with his cousin, Stuart Janney III.

Rosario and McGaughey arrived late because of a travel delay, causing Rosario to miss his first three scheduled mounts on the card.