06/13/2013 1:27PM

Churchill Downs: Fort Larned seeks fresh start in Stephen Foster

Tom Keyser
Fort Larned has flopped in his two starts this year, unseating his rider at Gulfstream and finishing fifth at Oaklawn.

In the pantheon of Breeders’ Cup Classic winners, Fort Larned hardly has distinguished himself as one of the all-time greats. In fact, if he doesn’t do something pretty soon – and Saturday in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs would be a good time to start – Fort Larned is in danger of becoming known as one of the more forgettable winners of America’s richest race.

Trainer Ian Wilkes is painfully aware Fort Larned has been a disappointment in his two starts this year. Wilkes is intent on setting things right, starting Saturday.

“I honestly think he’s as good this year as he was last year,” Wilkes said. “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t start showing that.”

Fort Larned capped a sensational 2012 with a 9-1 victory in the $5 million Classic last November at Santa Anita under Brian Hernandez Jr. It was his fifth win in a nine-race campaign that also included a triumph in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga. His earnings for the year were nearly $3.6 million.

But things have not gone to plan in his 5-year-old season. Fort Larned stumbled badly out of the gate in his season debut, the March 9 Gulfstream Park Handicap, throwing Hernandez immediately to the ground, and then he was a no-excuse fifth when beaten 10 lengths in the April 13 Oaklawn Handicap.

“We didn’t expect to be in this position nearly halfway into the year,” Wilkes said. “But it’s like, ‘Welcome to the real world.’ Sometimes things just don’t go the way you expect them to.”

Granted, Fort Larned has a long way to go to match the futility of a few other Classic winners. Cat Thief, the 1999 Classic winner, never won again in 11 tries. Volponi, who won in 2002, also was blanked in his next eight starts. But the ambitious schedule Wilkes has planned for the balance of 2013 strongly suggests the horse will need to get back to serious business to become a second-half factor.

The rest of the year starts with the Grade 1 Foster and will end, Wilkes hopes, with another run in the BC Classic, to be run Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. In between, there will be as many as three races in New York: the Grade 1 Whitney and/or the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Wilkes said Fort Larned has been “very focused and very happy” in his recent training at Churchill. The horse has had seven workouts since the Oaklawn Handicap, ending with a five-furlong breeze Monday morning.

“I gave him a little break after the Oaklawn race, and I’ve kind of changed up his work schedule to tease him,” he said. “We’re trying to keep him sharp and his head in the game.”

Hernandez was aboard Fort Larned for the last three works. He, as much as anyone, is eager to prove the horse has not lost a step. The Gulfstream debacle remains a sour memory that could be diminished with a win Saturday.

“My first thought when I was laying on the ground at Gulfstream was, ‘No way that just happened,’ ” he said. “In those big races, the last thing you expect is for one to stumble as badly as he did.”

But those things do happen. What may have been even more unsettling was what occurred at Oaklawn, when Fort Larned had good position through the early stages before fading badly as the 1-2 favorite.

“I always warm him up by himself, and that day he just wasn’t as happy as when he’s ready to run a big race,” Hernandez said. “I think it was more the racetrack [surface] than anything. He wasn’t as happy as when I can sense he’s going to run a big race.

“Down the backside, I kind of squeezed on him, and he was just kind of flat,” he said. “It was just one of those deals. The good thing is, it really seems like he’s back to himself. He’s finishing up great in his works.

“Anytime a horse wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic, it’s hard to lose confidence in him – although I know lot of people across the country have. I’m really wanting him to show up where we get people talking about him again.”

Hernandez will make up most of the 121-pound impost Fort Larned will carry as the Foster co-highweight with Successful Dan. With defending champion Ron the Greek and Take Charge Indy also in the Foster lineup, it’s possible Fort Larned could be as high as the fourth wagering choice in the 1 1/8-mile race, although Wilkes raised his eyebrows in mock delight at the thought.

“Fourth choice?” he said with a sly grin. “I think I’d have some of that.”

Regardless of the odds, Wilkes and the racing public know what Fort Larned is capable of. In the BC Classic, Fort Larned earned a 117 Beyer Speed Figure with his hard-fought, half-length score over Mucho Macho Man. It was the fifth time in seven races he had earned a Beyer of 108 or better. Moreover, as usual, the best horses in training at the time were in the BC Classic field, including Game On Dude, Ron the Greek, and Flat Out.

Naturally, Wilkes reveled in the BC Classic victory. Not only was there a huge financial windfall – the winner’s share was $2.7 million, from which the trainer typically is paid 10 percent – but it also gave him a BC Classic winner to match his mentor, Carl Nafzger, who won at Belmont Park with Unbridled in 1990, when Wilkes worked for him early in his career.

Unbridled won just twice more from seven starts after the BC Classic, putting him toward the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to Classic winners and their post-race accomplishments. Among the 20 of 29 horses to race after winning the Classic (which counts Tiznow twice as the 2000-01 winner), arguably less than half maintained their world-class form. Four who stand out won the Dubai World Cup the following March – Cigar, Pleasantly Perfect, Invasor, and Curlin. A few others, such as Skip Away and Zenyatta, also were brilliant the following season.

On the flip side, a handful never recaptured their winning form, including Cat Thief, Volponi, Ferdinand (0 for 6), and Wild Again (0 for 4).

Wilkes, obviously, would rather have Fort Larned join the first group. The march toward that goal begins Saturday night.

“This can be a humbling game,” he said. “Just when you think you might be ahead in this game, it brings you back to reality.
“That said, I haven’t lost my faith in the horse,” he said. “The way he’s acting and training, I think he’s ready to show people he’s worthy. We’ve got the bad part of this year behind us. Now it’s time to step up again.”

Breeders' Cup Classic winners

Year Winner W-L streak after Classic
(Total record after Classic)
2012 Fort Larned Lost 2 straight
2011 Drosselmeyer Retired
2010 Blame Retired
2009 Zenyatta Won 5 straight (5 for 6)
2008 Raven's Pass Retired
2007 Curlin Won 3 straight (5 for 7)
2006 Invasor Won 2 straight (2 for 2)
2005 Saint Liam Retired
2004 Ghostzapper Won 1 (1 for 1)
2003 Pleasantly Perfect Won 2 straight (3 for 5)
2002 Volponi Lost 8 straight (0 for 8)
2001 Tiznow Retired
2000 Tiznow Won 1 (3 for 6)
1999 Cat Thief Lost 11 straight (0 for 11)
1998 Awesome Again Retired
1997 Skip Away Won 7 straight (7 for 9)
1996 Alphabet Soup Lost 1 (0 for 1)
1995 Cigar Won 4 straight (5 for 8)
1994 Concern Won 1 (3 for 9)
1993 Arcangues Won 1 (1 for 3)
1992 A.P. Indy Retired
1991 Black Tie Affair Retired
1990 Unbridled Won 1 (2 for 7)
1989 Sunday Silence Won 1 (1 for 2)
1988 Alysheba Retired
1987 Ferdinand Lost 6 straight (0 for 6)
1986 Skywalker Lost 2 straight (1 for 5)
1985 Proud Truth Lost 6 straight (1 for 8)
1984 Wild Again Lost 4 straight (0 for 4)