04/11/2013 3:54PM

Oaklawn Handicap second start to season for Fort Larned


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.

[ARKANSAS DERBY: Get Oaklawn PPs, watch video previews]

“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.”

Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/77499/unbeaten-black-caviar-amazes-in-25th-win For those who are interested in racing on an international level. Since DRF's international coverage has been incredibly weak, I've had to go to another site to get this info. Last time I apologized to DRF for having to do this. This time I think DRF should apologize to ALL OF US who are LOYAL followers of their site. Enjoy the greatness that is BLACK CAVIAR!
Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
Here is the link for DRF's article on Black Caviar race. Well written but it wasn't in their home page. Enjoy http://www.drf.com/news/black-caviar-cruises-25th-straight-victory
Richard More than 1 year ago
I did not like how Gulfstream played in the first nine weeks of 2013. Jan.09, 2013 in The Florida Sunshine Millions, Mike Smith had to pull up Mucho Macho Man who lost The Breeders Cup Classic by half a length. Racing against sprinters! Feb. 09, 2013 in The Donn H. the last two horses, Citrus Kid and Ultimate Eagle, did not finish their race and Ultimate Eagle stopped and had to be vanned off. March 09, 2013 in The Gulfstream H. The Breeders Cup Classic winner Fort Larned stumbled badly and unseating his rider Hernandez B J Jr. Tracks have to be properly maintained especially in the winter. I am not interested in betting at Gulfstream!
sat.customer More than 1 year ago
What happened to Alternation ? I like Atigun for 3rd
Elizabeth More than 1 year ago
Never was a big fan of this horse, but since seeing him run his race without a jock and pull himself up thinking he'd won...gotta love him. He knows his job and how to do it!
jttf More than 1 year ago
fort larned is the best of this bunch. but does wilkes want this horse to be carrying that much weight all year ? i like cyber secret and alternation.
findingsymmetry More than 1 year ago
123 is not that much weight. Derby horses carry 126. Trainers need to grow a pair and let these handicap horses be handicapped to prove how good they are, like they used to.
michael More than 1 year ago
Absolutely right. No more crying like Bobby Frankel, Gid rest his soul, used to do.
Billy Spathanas More than 1 year ago
Fort Larned is the best older horse period. The best since Ghostzapper....
sat.customer More than 1 year ago
Curlin ????
findingsymmetry More than 1 year ago
Was overrated.
Mike Lee More than 1 year ago
I love Larned,but your what about Curlin ??? is spot on...anyone who thinks he was overrated probably enjoys pocket pool way more than the sport of kings!! ML
Billy Spathanas More than 1 year ago
Oops, might have forgot him....
Ronald Dodgen More than 1 year ago
Welcome back Champ!!