10/31/2013 9:23AM

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.