Janis R Whitham’s Fort Larned, the reigning winner of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade I) and a dazzling victor in this year’s Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs, will tune-up for his bid to score consecutive wins in the Breeders’ Cup race when he faces two fellow Grade I stakes winners in a talented field of seven entered for the first running of the $175,000-added Homecoming Classic during the “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” night racing program on Saturday, Sept. 28.
The Homecoming Classic, run at 1 1/8 miles over the main track for 3-year-olds and up, was designed to be a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) on Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs. The race appears to have met those expectations in its inaugural running by attracting a trio of Grade I stakes winners in Fort Larned, Pool Play and Golden Ticket; stakes winners Prayer for Relief, Worldly and Agent Di Nozzo; and Windswept, who comes into the race off back-to-back allowance wins in search of his first stakes victory.
The first running of the Homecoming Classic is scheduled as the seventh event on an 11-race “Downs After Dark” program with the theme of “Homecoming Dance: A Night to Remember.” Post time for the first race is 6 p.m. (all times Eastern) and admission gates will open at 4 p.m. The scheduled post time for the Homecoming Classic is 9:05 p.m.
The Homecoming Classic shares the racing spotlight with the 36th running of the $100,000-added Jefferson Cup (GIII) for 3-year-olds at one mile on turf. The Jefferson Cup, which will follow the Homecoming Classic as the eighth race, starts a 50-cent minimum Pick Four with a guaranteed pool of $100,000 that will cover the night’s final four races.
Despite his rivals’ considerable on-track accomplishments, the Ian Wilkes-trained Fort Larned figures to be a strong favorite for the Homecoming Classic. He has had an uneven 2013 campaign since his Breeders’ Cup Classic victory last fall at Santa Anita and has scored only one victory in four attempts.
But his lone victory was a dazzling 6 ¼-length romp in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 15, an effort that ranks among the year’s most impressive performances by an older horse in North America. The Stephen Foster triumph lifted Fort Larned’s Churchill Downs record to 2-1-0 in five races and his career slate to 9-2-1 in 21 races with earnings of $4,053,917.
Regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. will be in the saddle aboard Fort Larned. The 5-year-old son of E Dubai will start from post five and carry high weight of 125 pounds, conceding from two to four pounds to his rivals.
Fort Larned will not be the only winner of the Stephen Foster Handicap competing in the Homecoming Classic. William S. Farish Jr.’s Pool Play won the 2011 running of the Grade I Churchill Downs race at odds of 36-1. The 8-year-old homebred son of Silver Deputy will be looking to snap a seven-race losing streak that dates to an October victory in the Washington Park Handicap (GIII) over the synthetic Polytrack surface at Arlington Park.
Miguel Mena, who was aboard for Pool Play’s Stephen Foster shocker, will be in the saddle for trainer Mark Casse. Pool Play drew the rail post and will bring a career record of 7-7-7 in 39 races and earnings of $1,311,458 into Saturday’s race.
The third Grade I winner in the talented Homecoming Classic field is Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket, who finished in a dead-heat for the win with Alpha in the 2012 running of the $1 million Travers (GI) at Saratoga. The Kenny McPeek-trained 4-year-old son of Speightstown was the distant runner-up to Fort Larned in this year’s Stephen Foster and followed that effort with an easy eight-length win in the Prairie Meadows Handicap in late July.
Jockey Robby Albarado has the mount on Golden Ticket, who will break from post eight and carry 121 pounds. He has run 18 times with a record of 5-5-3 and career earnings of $896,323.
Outside of the Grade I-winning trio, the most accomplished member of the Homecoming Classic field is Zayat Stables LLC’s Prayer for Relief, a 5-year-old son of Jump Start with five career stakes wins to his credit. Now trained by Steve Asmussen, Prayer for Relief comes into Saturday’s race off back-to-back stakes victories in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker (GIII) and the Governor’s Cup at Remington Park, where he defeated Homecoming Classic rival Worldly by a head. Those stakes wins were the first for Prayer for Relief since a three-race stakes string in 2011 for former trainer Bob Baffert that included victories the Super Derby (GII), West Virginia Derby (GII) and the Iowa Derby (GIII).
Prayer for Relief, who will carry 123 pounds and break from post four, will be ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr. His career record stands at 7-5-4 in 22 races with earnings of $1,524,725.
Chad Shumer’s Worldly comes into the race off his near miss against Prayer for Relief in the Remington Park Governor’s Cup. A victory in the 2011 Prairie Meadows Handicap is the only stakes win by the 6-year-old son of A.P. Indy, but he has run well in stakes races at several tracks. Trained by Paul McGee for most of his career, Worldly has runner-up finishes in the Northern Dancer (now known as the Grade III Matt Winn) at Churchill Downs and Ohio Derby (GIII) in 2010 and third-place runs in the 2009 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) at Churchill Downs and the 2011 Remington Park Governor’s Cup to go with his two solid stakes runs this year.
Now trained by Brendan Walsh, Worldly break from post six under jockey David Flores and will carry 121 pounds. Worldly has earned $353,383 while compiling a career record of 3-9-3 in 26 races – including a slate of 2-4-1 in eight starts at Churchill Downs.
Robert and Lawana Low’s Agent Di Nozzo enters Saturday’s race off a disappointing fifth-place finish behind Wilcox Inn in the Washington Park Handicap (GIII) on the Polytrack course at Arlington Park. But he has a pair of stakes wins to his credit in the $100,000 Golden Beer and Indiana Downs. The 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding is trained by Steve Margolis and has a 7-2-1 record in 15 career races and has earned $268,842.
Shaun Bridgmohan will ride Agent Di Nozzo, who will carry 121 pounds and break from post seven.
Rounding out the field is Windswept, a winner of back-to-back allowance races at Saratoga and Churchill Downs for trainer Charlie LoPresti, the trainer of reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan. The 5-year-old son of Arch has had some issues with injuries since he launched his racing career in October of 2010 and has raced only eight times over four years. But Windswept enters Saturday’s race off a sparkling 9 ½-length allowance romp at Saratoga and will bid for his first stakes victory in only his second attempt.
Windswept will break from post two under Corey Lanerie, the co-leading rider of the September meet with 13 wins through Sunday. He will carry 121 pounds in the Homecoming Classic.