06/07/2013 4:36PM

Jay Hovdey: With Triple Crown over, the grown-ups finally take center stage

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Tom Keyser
Fort Larned will try to recover from recent mishaps in the Stephen Foster June 15 at Churchill.

Will someone please peek out of the curtains to see if the coast is clear? Any of those young hooligans still hanging around, trampling the lawn and playing their loud, rappity-rap music? Is it finally safe again for the adults to come out and play?

Sunday could be the day, because that is when the quest for the 2013 Triple Crown finally will have reached an end and, for want of a better date, the second half of the season begins. Come the dawn there suddenly will disappear any need to wonder what Todd Pletcher is thinking about a 3-year-old at any particular moment or when a van is scheduled to leave Churchill Downs heading east. The words “frac” and “daddy” need never appear in the same sentence again, at least without good reason, as the rest of the top-flight Thoroughbred population finally emerges from behind bushes and rocks to take their turn in the sun. If it ever stops raining.

It is unreasonable to expect a second half in 2013 like 2012, especially among the older males, when at one time or another such talented animals as Wise Dan, Fort Larned, Point of Entry, Game On Dude, Little Mike, Flat Out, Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek, and To Honor and Serve caught the eye.

Ditto the older fillies and mares, who mixed it up with the best of the 3-year-old fillies in 2012 to provide outstanding entertainment, thanks to Royal Delta, Groupie Doll, Include Me Out, Zagora, Love and Pride, Tapitsfly, Questing, and My Miss Aurelia.

By now, the game’s camp followers have come to understand that each season is a chapter in a never-ending story. Characters come and go with heartless impunity, sometimes evaporating completely from view. It’s never wise to get hooked on a particular hero.

The first half of Royal Delta’s year was sacrificed on the altar of the Dubai World Cup, where she is clearly not at home. As for Groupie Doll, she has not run at all and may not for several months.

At least Wise Dan has provided two quality appearances befitting a reigning Horse of the Year, and Game on Dude is a perfect 3 for 3 running East and West. But Little Mike ran twice to no avail in Dubai, Include Me Out remains among the missing, and Point of Entry had just one race this year before his scheduled appearance in the Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Day.

The most frustrating encore for any of the stars of last year has been the two appearances by Fort Larned, winner of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a tenacious battle with Mucho Macho Man. Among those behind them that day were the winners of the Woodward, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Stephen Foster, the Californian, and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

In his debut as a 5-year-old, Fort Larned dumped Brian Hernandez at the start of the March 9 Gulfstream Park Handicap, charged through the field to the lead, and ran willy-nilly around the course to cross the finish line far in front of his more traditionally mounted opposition.

After getting him back in one piece, trainer Ian Wilkes produced Fort Larned a month later in the Oaklawn Handicap. Hernandez stayed on board this time, but the real Fort Larned didn’t show. After stalking the pace of local favorite Cyber Secret, the Breeders’ Cup winner surrendered without a fight to finish fifth.

Wilkes retreated to his Churchill Downs home base and took a deep breath, or maybe a valium.

“What a way to start the year. It was not a pretty sight, what happened at Gulfstream,” Wilkes said Friday from Churchill. “I watched him closely for the next week, and the horse didn’t leave any feed. All indications were showing that he bounced out of it the right way, and no harm done. But obviously it took a little more out of him than I thought, and we just didn’t know it until he got back to the races.”

In a way this makes sense. Classy animals do not tip their weaknesses easily. The good ones play hurt and rarely complain. The riderless Fort Larned was hand-timed in a track record for the mile of the Gulfstream Handicap, and man was he a beautiful sight in full, majestic flight. Given the controlled parameters of training and racing, however, it presented a wild-card scenario that would have challenged anyone.

Because the Oaklawn Handicap unfolded in a more customary, if unsatisfying, manner, Wilkes at least knew he had a short horse who should be tighter next time around. That opportunity comes up June 15 at Churchill Downs in the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, a race in which he finished eighth in 2012 in a duel with division leaders Wise Dan, Ron the Greek, and Nate’s Mineshaft. Royal Delta also is scheduled to return that afternoon in the Fleur des Lis.

“The last few weeks his works have been tremendous here,” Wilkes noted. “I’ve no complaints with the way he’s doing. He’s a maturing horse still, maybe a bit bigger than he was this time last year. And he’s doing the little things differently, like a more mature horse. I see no reason why he can’t get back to the same top level he was at last year.”

In the meantime, for those who just can’t wait, there is a countdown clock ticking at the top of the official Kentucky Derby website maintained by Churchill Downs. At the start of business Friday, the day before the Belmont Stakes, there were 329 days, eight hours, 48 minutes, and 17 seconds until the Triple Crown started again.