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Jay Hovdey: Fort Larned tries to buck trend in quest of Breeders' Cup Classic repeat
With the Breeders’ Cup returning to the same stage as 2012, the sights and sounds of last year’s competition linger. None is more vivid than the victory of Fort Larned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the stories that trailed in his wake.
Stories of his owner and breeder, Janis Whitham, the lady from western Kansas last seen in a Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle alongside Fort Larned’s granddam, the Racing Hall of Fame mare Bayakoa. Of trainer Ian Wilkes, who proved the extent to which he had been paying attention to his mentor, Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger. Of Brian Hernandez, the young journeyman from Louisiana making the most of his first big chance on the national stage, and who just happened to be celebrating his 27th birthday.
Now they are back, taking the field at Santa Anita Park on Saturday afternoon as defending champs in the 30th running of the $5 million Classic. The title is a blessing, obviously, but also a curse, at least from the angle that winning it once guarantees nothing about winning it again.
How tough is it to defend in the Classic? Well, 11 have tried and only one succeeded, in operatic fashion, when Tiznow narrowly defeated Godolphin’s Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park.
Cigar couldn’t do it. Zenyatta couldn’t do it. Neither could Skip Away, Curlin nor Pleasantly Perfect. Classic champions Skywalker and Volponi went from first one year to last the next. Concern and Cat Thief , both winners of the Classic at age 3, were also-rans the following year.
Ian Wilkes was a young Australian horseman who had just begun working for Carl Nafzger when Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1990. Nafzger had Unbridled back for the Classic at Churchill Downs in 1991, but they could do no better than third behind the front-running Black Tie Affair, who got loose on the lead with the slowest half-mile (48.40 seconds) in Breeders’ Cup Classic history.
“I was back home in Australia when Unbridled ran in that one,” Wilkes said. “Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not saying that’s why he lost.”
Wilkes is by nature a serious guy, or at least as serious as Australians get. That he is able to crack wise at this point, after the frustrating 2013 season endured by Fort Larned, speaks loudly not only to Wilkes’s healthy outlook on life, but also to the current condition of his horse.
“I think he’s on the same level as last year,” Wilkes said of Fort Larned earlier this week. “The only difference is he’s a little more battle-tested.”
It’s hard not to be. For the past two seasons there has been no place to hide in the East and Midwest for a good older horse on the main track.
“Any one of them can bring their A-game for a given race and blow the rest away,” Wilkes said. “That means every time you run in a Grade 1 race against horses of that caliber, you’d better be 110 percent if you want to win.”
Fort Larned certainly answered the call in the 2012 Classic when he traded punches with Mucho Macho Man before prevailing by half a length.
“The first month after that I probably watched the race 10 times,” Wilkes said. “Then a few weeks ago, I went back and watched it again. I wanted to see how he came out of the gate, how he traveled in the race, and compare that to how he is now. I saw what I wanted, and I still enjoyed watching it.”
Reruns of “Hello Larry” would make for better viewing than most of Fort Larned’s 2013 campaign. First he dumped Hernandez and ran dangerously loose in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. After that he flopped miserably at Oaklawn Park. The ship was righted with a runaway win in the Stephen Foster – that was the Fort Larned we all knew – but then his slacker twin showed up again for dull defense of his Whitney Handicap title, and it was back to square one.
Since the Saratoga race Wilkes has been training Fort Larned with the Classic specifically in mind. He used something called the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs as a full pads scrimmage – Fort Larned gave it only as much as it deserved -- otherwise it would have been three months between the Whitney and the Classic.
“What happened at Gulfstream changed the whole year,” Wilkes said. “If I could turn the clock back and have a re-do of the Gulfstream race I’d love that.”
Wilkes and his fellow competitors can be forgiven if they experience a “Groundhog Day” flash in the paddock on Saturday and conclude that it’s 2012 all over again. Four horses are back from the last year’s Classic, including the first three finishers – Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man, and Flat Out – plus beaten-favorite Game On Dude, who will be the choice again this year. Game On Dude is the only gelding among them.
“It’s a real tribute to the owners, the trainers, and the horses that those [four] are back again for this one,” Wilkes said. “Although I did try to make a good case that Flat Out and Mucho Macho Man should have retired by now. I guess they weren’t listening to me.”
Fort Larned may need to remind them.
Yeah, I'm having trouble with DRF.com also. For some reason can't access DRF Plus content today, or Ticketmaker...what timing. Puzzling and very frustrating.
And since this story went out it was released that Fort Larned is sold to Adena...
Fix formulator wtf!
Formulator not working (again)
Fort Larned will not beat Mucho Macho Man today. He is on top of his game this year. There is no way they should retire MMM - He should come back next year hopefully to defend the title he will win tonight - The BBC Classic and hopefully when they retire him he will retire and stay here in the US where he belongs. His fans deserve to visit him and watch his offspring thrive here in the USA where they belong. Quit sending our champions to Japan, Korea and Argentina - Its all about money - no one cares that they slaughter horses in these countries and we never get updates. Us fans need to join together and stop the out of the USA sales and shipping our champions out of the country. Poor Ferdinand - he did not deserve what happened to him. Shame to all his connections and now look at Harlans Holiday who know what they did to him. Shame on WinStar for sending him there!!!!!!!!!!
Jay Robbins was the only trainer to win back to back BC Classic's with Tiznow......worth mentioning I'd say.
Going just on the evidence, the races Fort Larned has run in 2013 as compared to 2012, he doesn't appear to be quite as complete a horse this year. Namely, he appears to have become a need-the-lead frontrunner. When he has had company up front early in his races this year, he has lost. In contrast, when he made uncontested leads in the two Churchill races, he won easily. And even though he set totally legit paces in both of those races, the key was that he was unchallenged and alone on the lead.
Whooaa tiger. Say anything. Knocking Hello Larry ! That is clearly going over the line. Maclean Stevensons finest hour. Mash........rubbish.
Fort Larned just didn't look good during his workout this week at SA. He seems have lost a step or two. Should be a great betting race!
Curlin and Zenyatta both had to switch surfaces to try and defend their title. Curlin didn't really stand a chance on the synthetic, it was sporting of his connections to even run him. Also, I don't care what Mike Smith says about her, she wasn't better on dirt (or the horse of the decade for that matter). She was a great mare, and probably one of the best synthetic runners we'll ever see over here. Still hard to repeat, but those two horses' tasks were made doubly harder. At least Fort Larned gets to come back to the same track.