04/11/2013 3:54PM

Oaklawn Handicap second start to season for Fort Larned

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The trainer Ian Wilkes stood atop steps on the Gulfstream Park apron as the 10th race March 9 began. Trees obscured the starting gate, and when the horses in the Gulfstream Park Handicap came into view, Wilkes’s runner, Fort Larned, was nowhere to be seen.

“I can’t really tell you exactly what was going through my mind right then, but when I didn’t see him, I knew something had gone wrong,” Wilkes said.

When Fort Larned popped into Wilkes’s sight moments later, no rider sat upon his back. In the second stride of his first race after winning the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Fort Larned face-planted, dumping jockey Brian Hernandez. Riderless, Fort Larned quickly caught and crushed his rivals before being corralled on the backstretch by an outrider.

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“He thought he won,” Wilkes said.

More importantly, Fort Larned escaped injury, and soon Wilkes was looking for another spot. Saturday’s Oaklawn Handicap fit for timing, prestige, and purse, and Fort Larned, having shipped from Florida on Monday, heads a 10-horse field slated to start in the Grade 2, $500,000 race.

Wilkes sent Fort Larned early to Oaklawn to get some training over an unfamiliar track, and on Wednesday Fort Larned worked an easy half-mile, handling the surface without issue, Wilkes said.

Fort Larned’s bad stumble caused only a minor injury to his hoof. He has since posted four timed workouts and comes into Saturday’s start in robust health.

“We were very, very fortunate,” said Wilkes. “There are so many variables that could have gone wrong and didn’t.”

Fort Larned needs to run now, Wilkes said. He was a sharp horse – perhaps too sharp, contributing to his stumble, Wilkes speculated – before his seasonal debut, and has since retained his edge. Fort Larned packs top weight of 123 pounds Saturday, conceding six to 13 pounds to his opponents, but an in-form Fort Larned merits odds-on favoritism. Rising rapidly through the older-horse division last year, Fort Larned won the Skip Away at Gulfstream and the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows before breaking into the national elite in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga.

Fort Larned drew post 9 for the 1  1/8-mile Oaklawn Handicap. Golden Ron and Unstoppable U figure to go forward early; Fort Larned and regular rider Hernandez should be with the pace or just behind the leaders.

“He’s not a one-dimensional horse,” Wilkes said. “He can sit behind, he can lead.”

The last two Oaklawn Handicap winners, Alternation and Win Willy, are part of the field. Win Willy, at age 7, appears past his prime, and 5-year-old Alternation has questions to answer. His 2012 campaign ended with a fading sixth-place finish as the odds-on favorite in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and Alternation was fifth – albeit with a wide trip in a comeback start – in the March 9 Razorback.

“I’ve been very happy with him since the Razorback; he put in some real nice works,” trainer Donnie Von Hemel said. “I think he’s still this kind of horse but he’s got to go out and prove it.”

The Razorback’s top three, Cyber Secret, Golden Ron, and Atigun, all are entered. Cyber Secret failed to progress as a 3-year-old at Oaklawn last year, but has won all three of his starts there this season.

“I always thought there was a lot to him,” said trainer Lynn Whiting. “Last winter, he just wasn’t settled and he was chasing good horses, and that’s not a good recipe. When he came back here, he handled this racetrack better. He looks like a horse moving forward.”

Atigun, another 4-year-old, has failed to win since May but has come close in races like the Belmont, the Travers, and the Breeders’ Cup Marathon last year, and was beaten a half-length in the Razorback. Seeking a breakthrough, trainer Ken McPeek equips Atigun with blinkers Saturday.

“He’s been having trouble passing horses,” McPeek said. “Last time we experimented with not using the whip.”

Neither Wilkes (as a head trainer) nor Fort Larned has raced at Oaklawn, and before the Florida fiasco, a trip to Arkansas wasn’t planned. But now the leading older dirt-route horse in the country can flaunt his talent before a huge Arkansas Derby Day crowd.

“I’ve got no excuses,” Wilkes said. “He’s on his game, ready to go.”