Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade I) winner Fort Larned continued his preparations for Saturday’s $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI) with a five-furlong breeze in 1:01.40 on the muddy main track at Churchill Downs on Monday morning.
Working under Brian Hernandez Jr., Fort Larned recorded fractions of :13.80, :26.40, :38.20 and :49.80. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:14.60.
After two disappointing starts year, trainer Ian Wilkes is hopeful Fort Larned can prove to be the “big dog” once again in the Stephen Foster Handicap.
“When you get to a Grade I race, they don’t just hand them to you,” Wilkes said. “I wish they would hand it to us, but they’re not going to do it. That’s the challenge. Fort Larned has to step up to the plate and become the big dog again. That’s what he’s got to do.”
Janis Whitham’s homebred Fort Larned made his 5-year-old debut in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) in March and lost Hernandez after stumbling at the start. Fort Larned proceeded to race around the track without the guidance of a rider and finished well in front of the field.
“You can jump up and down and scream and holler all you want, but it’s part of racing,” Wilkes said. “You go from the highest of highs to the low of thinking he could have finished his career. He could have hurt himself real bad. It was a sigh of relief when he came back fine. The important thing was that he was OK and Brian was OK.”
Fort Larned made his second start of the year in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII) and finished fifth as the 1-2 favorite in the field of 10. Wilkes said he expected a better performance.
“He didn’t show any signs of being fatigued and I thought he was on top of his game,” Wilkes said. “I was a little surprised.”
Now heading into his third start of the year, Wilkes is hopeful Fort Larned, who was last of eight in last year’s Stephen Foster Handicap, will be back in top form Saturday.
“You never know until you get back to the races,” Wilkes said. “That’s the biggest key. His works have been really good – solid and crisp. And the horse looks really good. After the stumble and the bad race, I had to regroup. I had to get it together and this is our start for the second half of the year to get things going.”
Fort Larned, who is likely to be the co-starting high weight with Successful Dan at 121 pounds, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in gate-to-wire fashion, but Wilkes said he won’t necessarily go to the front in the Stephen Foster.
“You just don’t know until you see how you draw and see exactly who is in the race,” Wilkes said. “I know we’re thinking it’ll be six horses, but entries haven’t closes and someone could come in that could change the whole race. The main thing is that I’m just going to focus on my horse right now. When we see the post draw and see who is in there, then we’ll get a game plan together.”
Entries will be taken Wednesday morning. The probable field is Fort Larned (121 pounds), Successful Dan (121), Ron the Greek (120), Take Charge Indy (119), Golden Ticket (117) and Pool Play (115).
Wilkes, former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, said Fort Larned, who in addition to the Breeders’ Cup Classic won last year’s Whitney Handicap (GI), Cornhusker Handicap (GIII) and Skip Away (GIII), ranks as one of the most talented horses he’s worked with in his career.
“You can’t compare him to Unbridled or Street Sense because he’s a different type of horse,” Wilkes said. “But, in his own way, he ranks right up there with them.”
The Foster is one of five graded stakes races Saturday and will be run in prime time under the lights on the first of three “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” programs. The first of 11 races will be 6 p.m. (all times Eastern) and the Foster is scheduled as Race 8 at 9:39 p.m.
Other stakes on the million-dollar program are the $175,000-added Fleur De Lis Handicap (GII) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles (headlined by defending champ and two-time Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Royal Delta); the $100,000-added Matt Winn (GIII) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, the $100,000-added Regret (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles on turf; and the $100,000-added President of United Arab Emirates Cup (GI) for Arabian 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles. The latter will be only the second race for that breed in track history.
The theme for Saturday’s Downs After Dark racing and entertainment celebration is “The White Party.” On-track guests are encouraged to wear an all-white wardrobe.
After Race 4 at 7:26 p.m., representatives from the connections of Orb, including trainer Shug McGaughey III and jockey Joel Rosario, will be on hand to accept their engraved Kentucky Derby trophies.
Reserved seating can be purchased online at ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets or the on-track box office located at the Gate 1 entrance off Central Avenue (open Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. on ‘Downs After Dark’ Saturdays).