It has been nearly a year since A Stevens Miles’ multiple stakes winner Neck n’ Neck went to the sidelines while training for a bid for Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I), but a Sunday workout provided solid evidence that the son of Flower Alley could be stepping into a starting gate soon for trainer Ian Wilkes.The winner of the 2012 Indiana Derby (GII) and Churchill Downs’ Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) and Matt Winn (GIII) breezed five furlongs over a fast track in 1:01.80 on the cool morning under the Twin Spires. Regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. was in the saddle for the move, which ranked as the fifth fasted of 22 at the distance.
The work was the third five-eighths move in the month of September for the Miles homebred, whose bid for the 2012 Clark Handicap ended when he suffered a season-ending injury during a workout at Churchill Downs. He fractured a sesamoid in a front ankle that required surgery.
Wilkes has handled Neck ‘n Neck very patiently in his return to serious training and was pleased with the colt’s latest move.
“He’s getting closer,” Wilkes said. “He’s been back a few months and I’ve taken my time with him.”
Wilkes had the colt on the 2012 Kentucky Derby trail, running a solid fourth to eventual Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Union Rags before a fifth-place finish behind Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby (GI) prompted Wilkes to step back and hit the reset button with Neck ‘n Neck.
He romped to an easy victory in a Churchill Downs allowance race in May and followed that with a 7 ¼-length romp in the 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn (GIII) over the Louisville track.
Neck ‘n Neck followed those wins with a runner-up finish to Alpha in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy before a sixth-place run behind dead-heat winners Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Travers (GI). He rolled from far back to win Hoosier Park’s Indiana Derby before he defeated older rivals in the Ack Ack, a race that appeared to set him up well for the Clark.
The injury changed everything, but Wilkes believes that the post-injury Neck ‘n Neck he has watched in recent weeks has every chance to be the kind of horse his connections believed he would become at three.
“I think he can,” Wilkes said. “He’s given every indication that he can come back just as good.”
Neck ‘n Neck will soon have an opportunity to justify his trainer’s faith. Wilkes indicated the $100,000-added Michael G. Schaefer Memorial Mile at Hoosier Park on Oct. 5 could be the colt’s first start of his long layoff.
"The work was good this morning – nice and solid.” Wilkes said. “I just got to see how he comes out.”
Neck ‘n Neck has a career record of 5-2-0 in 14 races with earnings of $676,856.
Janis Whitham’s Fort Larned, Wilkes’ stable star and winner of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and 2013 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs, also was on the track Sunday. The 5-year-old son of E. Dubai galloped in first appearance on the track since a half-mile breeze in :49 on Thursday.
The training move was his first since Wilkes announced that a muscle strain would knock Fort Larned out of a planned run in Saratoga’s Aug. 31 Woodward (GI). A defense of his Breeders’ Cup Classic win at Santa Anita is the 2013 objective for Fort Larned, and Wilkes indicated Sunday that a run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) at Belmont Park on Sept. 28 is the most likely spot for his star’s final Classic prep.
Fort Larned also is nominated to Churchill Downs’ first running of the $175,000-added Homecoming Classic, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up, which is scheduled on the same day as the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
EASY SUMMER NEAR AN END FOR BOURBON COURAGE – After taking the late spring and most of the summer off, a return to competition looms for Bourbon Lane Stable’s Bourbon Courage, winner of the 2012 Super Derby (GII).
Bourbon Courage had an easy four-furlong breeze in :51.20 over a fast track Saturday at Churchill Downs. It was the first serious training move for trainer Kellyn Gorder’s star since a run in Churchill Downs’ Alysheba (GII) on Kentucky Oaks Day. He finished fourth to romping winner Take Charge Indy in the Alysheba, but was moved up to third via disqualification.
That effort was the fifth consecutive loss for Bourbon Courage since his career highlight at Louisiana Downs, and was his third setback in as many races in 2013.
“We took him back to WinStar Farm after that race and got him checked out,” Gorder said. “He came out of that race kind of banged up. It was nothing big, but we just decided to give him a break.”
Bourbon Courage spent about 90 days on the farm and Saturday’s work was the first opportunity for the 4-year-old son of Lion Heart to stretch his legs in a serious training move. Gorder said nothing is penciled in for Bourbon Courage’s return, but the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27 looms as an objective if all goes well in the coming weeks.
“We’d like to get one race in before that race,” he said. “I’d say he’d be ready to go by the last part of October or first part of November."
The career of Bourbon Courage spans just 11 races over two racing seasons, but the colt record is notable for both the talent he has displayed and his consistency on the track.
Along with his Alysheba run, his 2013 efforts include runner-up finishers to Graydar in both the Donn Handicap (GI) at Gulfstream Park and the New Orleans Handicap (GII) at Fair Grounds. He ended his 3-year-old campaign with a close third-place finish behind 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford in the Clark Handicap. His Super Derby win was the 2012 highlight, but he also finished second to Neck ‘n Neck in the Indiana Derby and was runner-up to Macho Macho in the West Virginia Derby (GII).
The career record for Bourbon Courage stands at 3-3-3 in those 11 races with earnings of $832,444. The numbers are impressive, but Gorder believes his colt has the potential to take his performance up a notch or two.
“We have to see how he comes back off this layoff,” Gorder said, “but you always hope that they come back better.”
BRIDGMOHAN, LANERIE TIED FOR LEAD IN JOCKEYS’ RACE – A four-win Saturday lifted Shaun Bridgmohan into a tie with Corey Lanerie for leading rider after five days of Churchill Downs’ 12-day September Meet.
Bridgmohan, the leading rider of Churchill Downs’ Spring Meet, and Lanerie stood atop the standings with seven victories. Calvin Borel was next with five wins, while a victory by Ricardo Santana Jr. aboard Vuitton in Saturday’s Open Mind pulled him into a tie with Norberto Arroyo Jr. at four victories on the meet.
There’s a familiar tie atop the trainers’ leaderboard as Dale Romans and Steve Asmussen each have five wins on the meet. Brad Cox and Steve Margolis are next with three victories apiece.
BARN NOTES: Veteran trainer William Ford died early Sunday following a long battle with cancer. Funeral arrangements are pending for the 58-year-old Ford, who was in hospice care at Norton Pavilion in downtown Louisville at the time of his passing. … Anita Cauley’s homebred On Fire Baby, winner of the Fantasy (GI), breezed seven furlongs in 1:27.80 on Sunday for trainer Gary Hartlage. It was the first work for the gray daughter of Smoke Glacken since her fourth-place run behind two-time champion Royal Delta in the Aug. 25 Personal Ensign (GI) at Saratoga. … Blueeyesinthein, winner of the 2012 Debutante (GIII), breezed six furlongs on Saturday in 1:13.80. The daughter of Magna Graduate is nominated for Saturday’s Dogwood (GIII), but trainer Garry Simms said Sunday that she would run that night in the seven-furlong, $400,000 Charles Town Oaks at the West Virginia track. … Naveed Chowhan’s Seaneen Girl, an easy winner of the Monmouth Oaks (GIII) for trainer Bernie Flint in her most recent start, breezed five furlongs in 1:02.20 Sunday. The move by the winner of the 2012 Golden Rod (GII) ranked as sixth-fastest of 22 at the distance. … Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Admiral Kitten, winner of Arlington Park’s Secretariat (GI), breezed five furlongs in 1:00.80 for trainer Mike Maker Saturday at Churchill Downs’ Trackside Training Center. Admiral Kitten is nominated to the Churchill Downs’ Jefferson Cup (GIII), which will be run Sept. 28. … Also working over that six-furlong oval was the Ramseys’ Regret (GIII) and Lake George (GII) winner Kitten’s Dumplings, who breezed five furlongs in 1:03.40.