03/06/2013 4:53PM

Gulfstream Park Handicap looking like battle of the Forts

Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Loudon (right), coming off this victory in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship, will try upset Fort Larned in the Gulfstream Park Handicap.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Fort Larned will be the starting highweight and favorite in Saturday’s $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, but trainer Nick Zito thinks he’s got a pretty good Fort of his own for the one-mile Grade 2 fixture – the multiple graded stakes winner Fort Loudon.

The Gulfstream Park Handicap drew a field of six that also includes the lightly raced but dangerous Discreet Dancer and Swagger Jack, runner-up to Fort Loudon four weeks ago in the Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship. Gourmet Dinner and perennial longshot Decaf Again, who makes his eighth start of the meet and fifth in the last five weeks, complete the lineup.

Fort Loudon has had his most success at distances ranging from six to seven furlongs, but Zito believes a one-turn mile is well within his wheelhouse. A homebred son of Awesome of Course owned by Fred Brei’s Jacks or Better Farm, Fort Loudon finished second behind Fort Larned’s younger stablemate Neck ‘n Neck last fall in the one-mile Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs. He exits one of the best races of his career, having outgamed Swagger Jack by a half-length after contesting all the pace in the seven-furlong Sprint Championship.

“He’s tough as nails – he’s going to have to be, obviously – and I’m happy with the way he’s training and the way he’s been acting coming into this race,” said Zito. “He usually comes all the time with his run. He’s beaten Trinniberg going three-quarters and his race going seven-eighths in the Sprint Championship was just fantastic. But I think the mile has got to fit him perfect, too. To me he’s up to a mile.”

Zito said Fort Loudon should benefit from the six-pound weight concession he’ll receive from the 124-pound highweight Fort Larned.

“It helps if you’re going down to the wire together, if he happens to be in a head duel like he was last time,” said Zito. “I hope this race is between the two Forts.”

Zito is also looking forward to running Declan’s Warrior in Saturday’s third race, an entry-level optional claiming dash for 3-year-olds going 7 1/2 furlongs on the main track. Declan’s Warrior rallied from far back to win his only 2-year-old start and was a late-running second behind the undefeated Park City despite losing a shoe when making his 3-year-old bow here last month.

“He’s a good horse,” said Zito. “I smile about this horse. Between the layoff and the fact he did lose a shoe, he should be a much better horse this time than in his last race.”

Declan’s Warrior will face five rivals including his stablemate Almost English and recent maiden winner Acclaim, who appears to be the speed of the field.