03/07/2013 4:28PM

Gulfstream Park Handicap has Fort Larned starting his year


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Fort Larned has spent the last four months vacationing in south Florida. Now it’s finally time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner to get back to work.

Fort Larned begins his 2013 campaign, one that will be designed to get him back to Santa Anita to defend his title in the BC Classic, in Saturday’s $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap. The Grade 2 race will be decided at one mile and drew a field of six that also includes top contenders Fort Loudon, Swagger Jack, and Discreet Dancer. Outsiders Gourmet Dinner and Decaf Again complete the lineup.

Fort Larned will carry high weight of 124 pounds while conceding up to a dozen pounds to his five rivals.

Fort Larned won 5 of 9 starts in 2012. Along with his crowning achievement, a game half-length triumph over Mucho Macho Man in the BC Classic, Fort Larned also captured the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga, defeating Ron the Greek and Flat Out. Although stabled last winter, like this one, at the Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach, Fla., Fort Larned made just one start here a year ago, rallying to a 2 1/2-length triumph in the Grade 3 Skip Away for the first graded stakes win of his career.

Fort Larned, a homebred son of E Dubai owned by Janis Whitham, has been working steadily for his return since early February, and trainer Ian Wilkes thinks he’s done enough to be ready for a big, but perhaps not peak, performance right off the bench.

“He’s doing really well. I’m happy with the way he’s been training right along,” said Wilkes. “We’ve been pointing for this race since we got down here. He’s ready to run, but it’s his first race of the year. Is he 110 [percent]? No. But he’s ready. A mile race like this probably isn’t his best distance. He’s better around two turns, but I think it’s a good spot for him to come back. I just didn’t need for him to have a taxing mile-and-one-eighth trip first time back. I want something to build off of.”

Wilkes reflected briefly on Fort Larned’s 2012 campaign.

“It was fun, wasn’t it?” Wilkes said with a smile. “It was a great year. After the Whitney, the plan was to make sure he would peak on Breeders’ Cup day, so we backed off and freshened him just a little because I’d been going with him so long. I couldn’t go to the Woodward and the Jockey Club and have him ready to win the Breeders’ Cup too.”

Fort Larned passed the Woodward and finished third in the Jockey Club before running the race of his life, earning a 117 Beyer Speed Figure, defeating Mucho Macho Man in the Classic.

“Right now we’re just anxious to get that first race back, to get him back in that rhythm,” said Wilkes. “I haven’t mapped anything specific out for him after this race, although coming out of Florida, we’ll most likely take a similar path to get him to the Breeders’ Cup as we did last season.”

Brian Hernandez Jr., who became Fort Larned’s regular rider during the second half of 2012, will be down for the assignment.

Fort Loudon is coming off a game victory over Swagger Jack in the Grade 3, seven-furlong Gulfstream Sprint Championship Handicap. Fort Loudon has proven to be at his best at distances ranging from six to seven furlongs. He defeated 2012 BC Sprint champion Trinniberg going six furlongs in Calder’s Carry Back and finished second, beaten a half-length, at seven furlongs in Saratoga’s Grade 1 King’s Bishop. But he did finish second behind Fort Larned’s stablemate Neck ’n Neck going a mile in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap last fall at Churchill Downs.

Swagger Jack has shown steady improvement since trainer Marty Wolfson removed the blinkers late last fall. Swagger Jack posted back-to-back, one-mile optional claiming victories earlier in the meet before rallying to finish second turning back to seven-eighths in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship.

Discreet Dancer has made all four career starts at Gulfstream and is undefeated around one turn. His lone setback in four career starts was a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth going 1 1/16 miles at 3. Discreet Dancer was sidelined more than 11 months after that race before returning to register a game neck victory in a six-furlong optional claiming and allowance dash here on Feb. 6.

“We’re very pleased with the way he ran off the layoff and even more so with the way he’s trained coming out of that race,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “This is a tough spot, but he loves Gulfstream and he’s a fresh horse that’s doing well, so we’re taking the chance.”