11/07/2012 4:45PM

Hovdey: Fort Larned puts Whithams back in racing's spotlight

Susie Raisher
Fort Larned (above) won the Breeders' Cup Classic for owner Janis Whitham, who also owned two-time champion Bayakoa.

News travels fast in the western Kansas town of Leoti (pop. 1,563), so when Janis Whitham heard that Thursday, Nov. 8, was going to be hailed as Fort Larned Day in honor of her Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, she stopped by City Hall to check it out with the mayor, Lori Elder-Christensen.

“I was at the post office earlier,” Whitham noted, “and somebody said, ‘Congratulations on that race! I saw the sign in your yard, and I was up at the bank, where there’s pictures and everything.’ ”

That would be Western State Bank, run by Stewart Whitham, Jan’s son.

“I think I might go buy a copy of the Leoti Standard,” she went on, “although it’s printed down in Cimmaron, and you never know what they might have in it. I understand the mayor’s got to have a meeting first to plan everything – get enough napkins, paper cups. Are they going to have the band play at the intersection?”

That would be where Kansas State Road 96 crosses 25, better known as Broadway and South Fourth Street.

“I’ve got his saddle towel hanging here in my kitchen,” Whitham added. “Be nice to take that along. But it will be simple. Leoti is a simple town.”

To be honest, Whitham was still a little bit giddy from the excitement of winning the Classic. When she returned to Leoti from Santa Anita there were signs decorating the front of her farm house and plans already in the works for the special day. She was still laughing at all the attention.

“My phone hasn’t quit ringing yet, and there’s only that many people in town,” she said.

Leoti’s not exactly the center of the Thoroughbred universe, and while the Whitham family is well known to racing insiders, they have other business concerns that occupy most of their attention, like feed lots, oil interests, cattle ranching, and banks, an empire inspired by family patriarch Frank Whitham, who died in a small plane crash in December 1993.

“I was 5 when my grandpa died,” said Travis Whitham, whose father, Clay, runs a bank in eastern Colorado and is deeply involved in the family Thoroughbreds. “I remember him carrying me around on his shoulders. Growing up, when we’d visit Leoti, there were always a lot of pictures of the horses at my grandmother’s house.”

Travis was one of about three dozen Whithams at Santa Anita last Saturday, and there were plenty more back home having a grand time. Leoti (pronounced “lee-OH-tah”) is about 125 miles as the jayhawk flies from Larned in central Kansas, where there is indeed a fort, and a very famous one.

“Fort Larned was the starting point for a lot of Western expeditions,” said Barth Whitham, another of Jan’s sons. “John C. Fremont left from there on his journey to California.”

Fort Larned, on the other hand, had to scramble to find a flight from Kentucky just to make it in time for the Breeders’ Cup, given the transportation chaos created by Superstorm Sandy. His trainer, Ian Wilkes, wasn’t crazy about stabling in the catch-all barn with other one-horse Breeders’ Cup contingents, so Jan suggested he contact Ron McAnally to see if there was room at his landmark Santa Anita shed row, hard by Baldwin Avenue.

“You didn’t have to ask,” McAnally replied.

The arrangement was fitting, sweet with karma. From the spring of 1988 until her retirement three years later, the Argentine mare Bayakoa made her home under McAnally’s protective wing. He would never leave the barn without a visit to her stall, from which she would hang her head to enjoy his carress, her pronounced overbite in comic profile.

“She could eat a carrot through a Venetian blind,” McAnally would crack, stroking her cheek.

She also was brilliantly fast and dramatic to a fault, liable to spook, wheel or dive sideways at anything from a backfire to a breath of wind.

“She could be crazy sometimes, but perfect in her stall,” recalled Eduardo Inda, McAnally’s assistant at the time. “Oh, what a mare she was.”

Bayakoa was all that and more, a winner of 15 stakes, two national championships, and a place with her trainer in the Hall of Fame, along with a pair of Breeders’ Cup victories that embodied the heights and depths of the game.

In the 1989 Distaff at Gulfstream Park, Wayne Lukas entered four fillies to run against Bayakoa in relay, or at least that was the theory.

“She shook them all off,” Jan Whitham said. “The only one running at her at the end was Gorgeous, and she didn’t get that close.”

In the 1990 Distaff, Bayakoa found herself in a ferocious duel with 3-year-old Go for Wand deep in the Belmont Park stretch when Go for Wand’s ankle snapped. The injury was fatal. Bayakoa’s line reads first by 6 3/4 lengths, but most people know better. The Whithams, faced with victory in the face of horrible tragedy, bowed their heads.

“You just had to leave,” Jan said. “There wasn’t much talking about it, and the crowd was pretty much the same way.”

Now 22 years later, Fort Larned, a son of Bayakoa’s daughter Arlucea, has become the latest Whitham family jewel with his half-length win over a stubborn Mucho Macho Man.

“We’re so proud of that horse,” Whitham said. “It’s just something you didn’t really want to think might happen. He was a plain guy when he was a yearling, not too big and heavy, but he wasn’t a runt. Ian tried him out in about three different ways. Taking him back and making one run, trying him on the grass to see if he liked that.

“He didn’t show enough spark until he got going this last spring,” she added. “I know there were a lot of people didn’t think he’d come to the party like he did. He just had to get it all together. And he did.”