08/01/2013 3:37PM

Saratoga: Fort Larned seeks rare Whitney repeat

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Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Larned enters Saturday's Grade 1 Whitney off a front-running 6 1/4-length victory in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap in June.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The field assembled for the 86th renewal of the 1 1/8-mile Whitney Invitational Handicap is worthy of a celebration.

On Saturday, Saratoga commemorates the actual 150th anniversary of the first race ever run here with a fantastic edition of the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney led by defending Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, who is attempting to become the first horse to repeat in the Whitney since Discovery won three straight runnings from 1934-36.

Fort Larned tops an eight-horse field that has combined to win 30 stakes – 21 graded – and more than $11.5 million in purses.

The marquee names challenging Fort Larned are millionaires Ron the Greek, runner-up to Fort Larned in last year’s Whitney; Mucho Macho Man, runner-up to Fort Larned in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic; and Alpha, winner of last year’s Travers Stakes. The field also includes Successful Dan, who beat Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man in last year’s Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes.

Then there’s the lightly raced but immensely talented Cross Traffic, who is a nose and a head away from being undefeated in four lifetime starts.

Longshots Csaba, a six-time stakes winner, and Fast Falcon, third in last year’s Travers, complete the field.

The Whitney is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, meaning the winner gets entry fees paid and a $10,000 travel stipend.

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Successful Dan, a 7-year-old half-brother of reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, missed the Whitney gala last year because of a strained sesamoidal ligament that sidelined him for the remainder of 2012. He returned in April to win the Grade 3 Ben Ali at Keeneland – beating next-out Grade 1 winner Boisterous – and was one of the favorites in the Stephen Foster at Churchill. But he was no match that day for Fort Larned, who ran away to a 6 1/4-length victory, with Successful Dan finishing fourth.

“Nobody was going to beat Fort Larned that night, but where he was, you would have thought he would have come on for second or third,” said Charlie LoPresti, the trainer of Successful Dan. “Julien [Leparoux] said he didn’t handle the track. It was the first time he ran a bad race at Churchill.”

LoPresti brought Successful Dan to Saratoga without a real plan. After two extremely good workouts over the main track, LoPresti was convinced to run the horse in the Whitney. Leparoux will ride from the rail.

“If he doesn’t run good this time, he’s lost a step,” LoPresti said.

Ron the Greek won two Grade 1 races last year, including the Stephen Foster, in which he beat Wise Dan and Fort Larned. But in analyzing the horse’s campaign, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott believes Ron the Greek’s runner-up finish in the Whitney “was maybe his best race” of 2012.

“It was a tremendous effort to come on and finish second,” said Mott, who counts the Whitney as one of the few Grade 1 stakes at this track he has yet to win. “He was getting to Fort Larned, which I can say on a couple of other occasions he hasn’t been getting to him.”

Ron the Greek, beaten a half-length by Game On Dude in the Charles Town Classic in April, will break from post 5 under Jose Lezcano.

Fort Larned had a rough start to his 5-year-old campaign. In the Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, he dumped jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. while leaving the gate and ran like a wild horse around the track. In the Oaklawn Handicap in April, Fort Larned did hardly any running, finishing fifth.

After a brief freshening, Fort Larned rebounded with an electrifying, front-running score in the Stephen Foster, a performance that, if he is able to duplicate Saturday, would most likely make him a repeat Whitney winner.

Fort Larned won last year’s Whitney by coming from off the pace, breaking from the outside post in a nine-horse field. Breaking from post 3 on Saturday, he may employ the front-running tactics that were successful in the Stephen Foster and Breeders’ Cup. Trainer Ian Wilkes said he would leave that decision up to Hernandez, who has flown in to work Fort Larned the past two weeks.

“He knows the horse so well now,” Wilkes said. “You can’t crawl out of the gate. You got to bounce out of the gate and read your race from there.”

The speedy Cross Traffic could prevent Fort Larned from making the lead. Cross Traffic enters off a nose defeat to Sahara Sky in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont on Memorial Day, when he set blistering fractions and got nipped at the wire.

Cross Traffic will be making his first start around two turns in the Whitney. Breaking from post 4 – instead of the rail, which he had for his past two starts – Cross Traffic may have more options for jockey John Velazquez.

“You’re going to have to play it on the break,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He’s a very fast horse; he’s been running much faster fractions than you’d anticipate he’d be running in the Whitney. From our post, they’ve got a decision to make inside of us, too. It’s going to be a riders’ race.”

Mucho Macho Man will have to work out a trip from post 2 under Edgar Prado. He had a useful prep when third in the Criminal Type Stakes and has been training well for his return to Grade 1 competition.

Alpha is 3 for 3 over this track, with victories in the Jim Dandy and Travers last year. He has lost five straight races and comes off a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Suburban last out at Belmont.

The Whitney goes as race 10 on a 12-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Eastern. It will be broadcast live by NBC during a one-hour show that begins at 5 p.m.