10/31/2013 8:23AM

Jay Hovdey: Fort Larned tries to buck trend in quest of Breeders' Cup Classic repeat

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Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Larned (right) will attempt to do what such great horses as Zenyatta and Cigar could not - win the Breeders' Cup Classic two years in a row.

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.

[BREEDERS’ CUP 2013: See DRF’s top contenders]

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.

 

WMaier More than 1 year ago
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.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
And since this story went out it was released that Fort Larned is sold to Adena...
m4TTz HaHa More than 1 year ago
Fix formulator wtf!
wolves More than 1 year ago
Formulator not working (again)
Debbie West More than 1 year ago
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!!!!!!!!!!
Roger More than 1 year ago
Jay Robbins was the only trainer to win back to back BC Classic's with Tiznow......worth mentioning I'd say.
Jordan More than 1 year ago
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.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
I like Wilkes.. I like the Horse but not for tomorrow. Wilkes doesn't seem happy to be there. He seems more resigned to it. He seems to ooze insecurity about Fort Larned even thru this article. Safe trips to all...
soroka More than 1 year ago
Whooaa tiger. Say anything. Knocking Hello Larry ! That is clearly going over the line. Maclean Stevensons finest hour. Mash........rubbish.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Ghostzapper More than 1 year ago
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.
Jordan More than 1 year ago
Curlin ran fine on the synth in the 08' Classic. He made an excellent move to the lead; unfortiunately for Curlin, the middle move he was asked to make and did make is not the last move that often wins turf-like synth races. And the Santa Anita synth in 08' and 09' was very much turf-like. If Robby would have been more patient and waited to make that move, he very likely would have won. As for Zenyatta, you are overlooking another big difference between her form of 08-09 and he form in 2010. By the time of the 10' Classic, Zenyatta was tailing off; it was a small decline, but it was apparent(and something I commented on in interactive sites like this). Whereas earlier Zenyatta could accelerate instantly and effortlessly on cue, sweep by her rivals, and then draw off to comfortable wins(only the 08' Vanity and 09' Hirsch were close), by 2010 things had become much more difficult for her. It took her longer to start rolling, and increasingly every race was becoming a dramatic nail-biter. She beat St. Trinians a half length in the Vanity, beat Rinterval a neck in the Hirsch, and beat Switch a neck in the Lady's Secret. Those were her 3 most recent races coming into the Classic. To top everything off, she was meeting a very, very good older horse, Blame, on his home track. Zenyatta had the home court in 2009, Blame had it in 2010. I will agree that Zenyatta's lack of dirt and open(male included) accomplishments make it impossible for me to rank her the horse of this new century. Just like your namesake's lack of two-turn accomplishments make it impossible for me to rank him #1 as well.
Ghostzapper More than 1 year ago
Curlin ran fine, but he never had a chance to -win- the race. I didn't mean that he was badly beaten. He was a champion and fought a surface that he didn't like, to have performed so well was admirable. If it was on dirt, he would have won. His task was made harder. That was my point about him. I don't understand why you are taking such a dissenting view from what I typed out. I didn't attack Zenyatta, I said she was better on synthetic and that she wasn't the horse of the decade. I went on to compliment her as one of the best race mares and synthetic runners ever. My points about these horses were limited to switching racing surfaces. You read FAR too much from my little comment. About horse of the decade, you again assume too much. Because I have taken the handle I have, it doesn't mean that I think he's the horse of the decade, either. Don't take it so personally.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
I actually believe that Zenyatta was as good on dirt as she was on synthetic. What she did to the reigning Eclipse Award older mare Ginger Punch in the 2008 Apple Blossom speaks to that. Her connections screwed up by not running her at Belmont Park at least one time in the Beldame. She may have dropped a 1 1/8 in 1:45 and change around those sweeping turns she would've swallowed. Given how lost she was for the first part of the 2010 BC Classic, the fact that she lost in a photo speaks to how great she was. May have been her best effort ever..
Ghostzapper More than 1 year ago
Smith said she was -better- on dirt, and that's what I disagreed with. She romped in the Apple Blossom, to be sure. But we can't ASSUME what she would have ran at Big Sandy (which would have only been a 1-turn race at 9f). And, she ran the fastest first half mile of her career in the 2010 Classic, she was as close as she was ever going to be in that race. She ran a good race, but as Jordan said above (and I never disagreed with), she wasn't as good in '10. It wasn't her best effort ever. Her 4yo or 5yo self would have romped and she would have gotten -somehow- even more credit than she already gets. She got beat on the square by a good, not great, horse.