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Breeders' Cup Classic Champion Fort Larned Returns in Gulfstream Park 'Cap
Fort Larned suddenly emerged as a main-track superstar last year, dominating the country’s best older horses in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) to cap a coming-of-age 4-year-old campaign that included a triumph in the Skip Away (G3) Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Not too shabby for a horse whose less-than-classic looks earned him the nickname “Big Ugly” when he first turned up at trainer Ian Wilkes’ barn to prepare for his 2-year-old season.
"He’s always been affectionately named ‘Big Ugly’ around the barn. He was a big 2-year-old with a big old head,” Wilkes said with a sheepish smile following training hours at Palm Meadows Training Center recently. “But everyone liked him. He definitely showed a little talent,” Wilkes added quickly for fear that the unflattering-but-endearing nickname might give the wrong idea about the potential of the late-developing Thoroughbred.
"Big Ugly” will showcase his ever-improving talent in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) on March 9.
“It’s a good stepping stone bringing my horse back. We’ve freshened him quite a bit since the Breeders’ Cup. We’ve been in a nice work pattern since,” Wilkes said. “For me and my style, I thought it was a perfect race back for him.”
The memory of his front-running victory in the Classic still fresh, Fort Larned is expected to be heavily favored for his 2013 debut in the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap.
“You’re always apprehensive for their first race because you remember how good they were when they finished. This is the same as Bill (Mott) watching Royal Delta come back and Shug (McGaughey) with Point of Entry,” said Wilkes referring to the recent victories of Royal Delta in the Sabin (G3) and Point of Entry in the Gulfstream Park Turf (G1) in their respective 2013 debuts. “You always want to see these good horses come back and do good. I’m anxious to have him come back and be as good as he was.”
Fort Larned wasn’t just good when he last took to the racetrack at Santa Anita in November; Janis Whitham’s homebred was great. The son of E Dubai went right to the lead and carried his speed throughout the 1 ¼ miles of the Classic to win by a half-length over Mucho Macho Man, with whom he was involved in a stretch-long duel before prevailing over the 2012 Gulfstream Park Handicap champion.
“It was such a special moment what the horse did,” Wilkes said, ‘and it was all about the horse.”
With a huge assist from jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
“It was crazy. We turned for home, and I knew I had a lot of horse. I hit him a couple times left-handed and he switched leads and gutted it out,” said Hernandez, who will venture from Fair Grounds to ride Fort Larned in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. “At the eighth pole, Mucho Macho Man was kind of gaining on him, and I pointed his head a little so he could see him and he dug back in.”
It was by design that Hernandez got Fort Larned involved in the early pace to prevent Southern California star Game on Dude from getting everything his own way.
“The important thing was the break. He had to break good, whether it meant he was on the lead or sitting second or third. We had to break good and not let Game On Dude dictate everything,” Wilkes said. “If we broke bad and let him dictate the race, then it’s a different complexion and the race changes. When we got the break – and Brian did a great job out of the gate – that set up the whole race.”
His victory in America’s richest race made Fort Larned a finalist for the Eclipse Award’s Horse of the Year title and Older Male title, both won by turf star Wise Dan. His fifth stakes victory of 2012 was also a credit to this trainer for a well-managed and well-executed campaign.
Yet, the low-key Wilkes deflects attention and diverts it to his wife of 22 years, Tracey, as well as his mentor, Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, and his wife, Wanda.
“It means a lot, but it’s never about me. I wouldn’t be here without my wife. I wouldn’t be here without Carl and Wanda. It’s about the team,” Wilkes said. “Yes, I’m fortunate to have my name out there. As a professional, yes, it’s great, but it’s an accomplishment for everyone.”
The 47-year-old Wilkes began his racing career at 16 as a groom and exercise rider in his native Australia before arriving in the U.S. in 1989 to serve as an exercise rider for Nafzger for a year and a half. Before his visa ran out and he returned to Australia, Wilkes was the exercise rider of the Nafzger-trained 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. He went on to train for three years in Australia without success.
"It was the best thing I ever did. I mismanaged my business and screwed it up. I didn’t know how to run a business. I didn’t understand the business. I thought it was easy: just go out and get the horses, no problem. It isn’t easy,” Wilkes said. “There’s a lot more to it, that’s why I’m so appreciative about the team around me.”
Wilkes decided to return to the U.S. with the blessing of his wife.
“I wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for me wife,” he said. “If she didn’t want to come back to America, I wouldn’t have come back. We would have stayed in Australia.”
Nafzger welcomed him back to his stable to serve as his assistant, while his wife worked as an exercise rider. Wilkes helped in the development of Street Sense and his wife galloped Nafzger’s second Kentucky Derby winner in 2006.
Nafzger semi-retired that year, passing along the bulk of his stable to Wilkes, whose association with his former boss continues to be strong.
“We’ve always had the same beliefs. We have the same ideas. We think a lot alike which is good. That makes it easy. During the transition, we never lost an owner. We just transferred the horses from his name to my name. All the owners came with us and stuck with the program,” Wilkes said. “That’s a credit to Carl and the owners. I’m just happy I can still execute the program and get the results.”
GETTING WITH THE PROGRAM
After debuting with a fourth-place finish behind Shackleford, who went on to win the 2011 Preakness Stakes, Fort Larned broke his maiden at Gulfstream on Jan. 8, 2011. But results were mixed for the rest of that year as Wilkes tried to find a niche for the late-developing son of E Dubai.
Trainer and horse got on the same page early last year, starting at Tampa Bay Downs.
“It’ll be a year this Saturday in the Challenger over at Tampa Bay Downs that he won his first stakes. He went from there in less than a year to being a candidate for Horse of the Year and candidate for Older Horse and making over $3 million. I told Craig, Mrs. Whitham’s son, ‘After I won the Challenger, if I told you we were going to win the Breeders’ Cup, you’d have locked me up, wouldn’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
Following his first stakes victory, Fort Larned captured his first graded-stakes success at Gulfstream in the Skip Away while breaking the track record for 1 3/16 miles on March 31.
“It was maturity. The horse just got better. During his 3-year-old year, I tried to make him a turf horse. I thought he’d run on the turf. It was just figuring him out and what he likes and finding out his strengths and weaknesses. I think the horse just matured. He was just a different animal last year,” Wilkes said. “He got mentally better. He got better physically – that was the main thing. He got stronger and matured. We got into a pattern where I found out what he likes to do. He likes to get into his races more. He’s a little bit of a free runner.”
Fort Larned went on to win the Cornhusker (G3) at Prairie Meadows before demonstrating that he belonged in the elite of the handicap division with a dominating triumph in the Whitney Handicap (G1) at Saratoga.
The brilliant Whitney performance was only eclipsed by his commanding effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, one that Wilkes has relieved in his mind on many occasions.
“We had all the others beat. In upper stretch, there was one small time, I thought, ‘Mucho Macho Man’s going to get me.’ But when Brian turned the horse’s head and he looked at the other horse, he was never going to let him by,” Wilkes said. “He was never going to let him by him.”
It was a race, Wilkes would love to relive at Santa Anita again in November.
by Ed Gray
Photos by Coglianese Photo