Fort Larned, the reigning winner of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade I), tuned up for a run in Saturday’s first running of the $175,000 Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs with a five-furlong work on Monday at the Louisville track.
Janis R. Whitham’s 5-year-old son of E Dubai cruised the distance under the track’s lights in 1:02.40 under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Fort Larned worked at 6:30 a.m. (all times Eastern) for trainer Ian Wilkes and Churchill Downs clockers recorded the work’s internal fractions as :13, :25.80, and :38.20. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:15.20 and seven-eighths in 1:29.
“I wasn’t looking for anything sharp – I didn’t want to break any records,” Wilkes said. “It’s the way he did it. He relaxed early and (Hernandez) let him punch. The horse is ready. He finished up good, got home good and galloped out strong. We’re ready to go.”
The 1 1/8-mile Homecoming Classic is scheduled as the seventh of 11 races in Churchill Downs’ Saturday, June 28 “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” program billed as “Homecoming Dance: A Night to Remember.”
Fort Larned, whose lone win in four races since last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph at Santa Anita was a sizzling 6 ½-length victory in Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) on June 15, will face six rivals in the Homecoming Classic. The race will be his final prep for a planned defense of his Breeders’ Cup Classic win on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita.
The race will be Fort Larned’s first since a disappointing fifth-place finish in the $750,000 Whitney Handicap (GI) at Saratoga. Fort Larned skipped a planned start in the Woodward at Saratoga in late August because of a muscle strain. Wilkes elected to keep Fort Larned home at Churchill Downs for a final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Homecoming Classic rather than travel to Belmont Park for Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI).
“I don’t have to ship,” Wilkes said. “The ultimate goal is to get to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Fort Larned will be a heavy favorite to win the Homecoming Classic, but the first-year race attracted six rivals. Five of the six are stakes winners and two of those – Pool Play and Golden Ticket – have won Grade I stakes events. Pool Play won the 2011 Stephen Foster Handicap and Golden Ticket finished in a dead-heat with Alpha for the win in the 2012 Travers (GI) at Saratoga.
“It’s a solid race,” Wilkes said. “There’s some hard-knocking horses in there.”
Wilkes is hoping for a test in the Homecoming Classic to prepare Fort Larned for the difficult task of his Breeders’ Cup defense.
“Someone said the other day that this is probably the strongest Breeders’ Cup (Classic) that we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “That’s the way it’s shaping up. You want everyone to stay sound and get there in good form. It’s going to be a tremendous race.”
Fort Larned will take a career record of 9-2-1 in 23 races and earnings of $4,053,917 into Saturday’s race. Wilkes describes his 2013 campaign as a “rollercoaster ride.” It started in March when Fort Larned stumbled at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap and unseated Hernandez, continued with a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Oaklawn Handicap, his easy victory in the Stephen Foster and his disappointing fifth-place effort in the Whitney.
Although little has gone according to plan, Wilkes likes where Fort Larned is as the calendar has turned to fall. And he’s anxious to see him run on Saturday.
“I’m happy,” Wilkes said. “The horse is healthy. He’s very bright, he’s very alert.”
Also working for the Homecoming Classic on Monday was Zayat Stables LLC’s veteran Prayer for Relief. The 5-year-old son of Jump Start – a five-time stakes winner with earnings of more than $1.5 million – breezed a half-mile for trainer Steve Asmussen in :50.20.
Prayer for Relief has yet to finish worse than second in four starts this year. He was runner-up in his first two races of the year in the Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII) and the Texas Mile (GIII), then notched back-to-back victories in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker (GIII) and the Governor’s Cup at Remington Park.
BARN TALK: Two of the outstanding 2-year-olds in the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen worked together on Monday at Churchill Downs. Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Untapable, winner over fillies in the Pocahontas (GII), and Ron Winchell’s Tapiture, a narrowly-beaten third in the Iroquois (GIII), breezed five furlongs and hit the finish line together in 1:01.80. The duo covered the distance in fractions of :13.80 and :37.80 and galloped out six furlongs in 1:15.40. Asmussen said Untapable’s next start would come in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) at Santa Anita on Saturday, Nov. 2. The Pocahontas is a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series race and her win earned the Tapit filly a spot in the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup race. Tapiture, beaten two necks by Donegal Racing’s Cleburne and Smart Cover in the Iroquois, will drop back into a maiden race. He finished second to Hopeful (GI) winner Strong Mandate in his debut in a Saratoga maiden race, his only other career start. … Zayat Stable’s True North Handicap (GII) winner Fast Bullet worked a half-mile in :50.60 for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. …Open Mind winner Vuitton breezed a half-mile in :50.
FRIDAY’S SEVENTH ANNUAL ‘LADIES DAY’ AT CHURCHILL DOWNS WILL BENEFIT THE BACKSIDE LEARNING CENTER – The seventh annual “Ladies Day at the Races”, sponsored by CALOSPA, will be held Friday at Churchill Downs. All proceeds benefit the Backside Learning Center, a non-profit educational facility serving the needs of the people who live and work on the backside of the track at Churchill Downs.
“’Ladies Day at the Races’ is the biggest annual fundraiser for the Backside Learning Center, which is an educational and resource center that serves hundreds of workers on the backside of the track at Churchill Downs,” said Sherry Stanley, Executive Director of Backside Learning Center. “This event is a fun way to spend the day, while supporting the equine workers who dedicate their lives to the Thoroughbred industry.”
The fundraising event will be held in the sixth floor Millionaires Row section of Churchill Downs. Patrons will be treated to a lunch buffet by Levy Restaurants with a day of racing, fall fashion show, silent and live auctions. The day’s events will be hosted by an auctioneer and retired jockey and TV analyst, Donna Barton Brothers.
Live auction highlights include: halters of Will Take Charge, Groupie Doll, Palace Malice and Verrazano; a one week stay in a South Beach, Fla. condo; two tickets to the practice round of the PGA and members’ tent access; and an on-air spot with Drew Deener on ESPN 680.
Tickets are $75 per person or $520 for a table of eight with an advance purchase. Tickets can be purchased online at www.backsidelearningcenter.org or by calling (502) 634-6543. Doors open at 12:30 p.m.
Media is welcome to cover the event.
The Backside Learning Center works to enhance the lives of equine workers by providing education, life skill resources and community. The Center serves over 300 workers annually. For more information on The Backside Learning Center, please visit www.backsidelearningcenter.org.