01/28/2013 2:08PM

Tampa Bay: Wilkes posts a three-bagger

John Duca/Tom Cooley Photography
This victory last March in the Challenger Stakes sent Fort Larned on his way to eventually winning the Breeders' Cup Classic.

TAMPA BAY, Fla. - There were no klieg lights or microphones around the winner’s circle last Wednesday like there were after Fort Larned won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last November, but his trainer, Ian Wilkes, was still smiling broadly when he posed for victory pictures three times, with Carolina Cruisin, Forever Vow, and Nicklaus Way.

Wilkes, who was selected as the track’s trainer of the month after winning six races in recent weeks, brought Fort Larned to Tampa last winter while trying to get his handicap star to take his game to a higher level. Fort Larned captured the 1 1/16-mile, $60,000 Challenger Stakes here and Wilkes said that win jump-started Fort Larned’s year.

“If he hadn’t won the Challenger I wouldn’t have tried him in the Skip Away,” said Wilkes, referring to a race at Gulfstream that Fort Larned won in track-record time. “It really turned out to be a pivotal race as things turned out.”

Wilkes, who came to this country from Australia to work with trainer Carl Nafzger, was involved in the development of Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense and gives Nafzger much of the credit for his success.

“It all stems from the program Carl set up a number of years ago and a great group of owners,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes trains at Palm Meadows but also has 16 stalls here and says Tampa fits well in his stable’s plans.
“It’s a kind surface and the horses do well here,” he said.

The trainer is pointing recent local winner Cheechako and Magic Hour for the $50,000 Manatee at seven furlongs on Feb. 9.

◗ Speaking of local connections to Breeders’ Cup winners, jockey Willie Martinez was on hand with Team Trinniberg when the Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner was awarded top sprinter honors at the recent Eclipse Awards dinner. Martinez rode Trinniberg to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.