Reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Fort Larned prepared for a defense of his title on his home track with a powerful, gate-to-wire win in the inaugural $191,275 Homecoming Classic on Saturday night at Churchill Downs.
The 5-year-old Kentucky-bred turned back a late charge by Windswept to win by 1 ½ lengths and blitzed his five rivals by running 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.58 under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
The Janis Whitham homebred son of E Dubai out of the Broad Brush mare Arlucea banked $117,405 for the win and improved his career earnings to $4,171,322 from 10 wins, two seconds and a third in 24 starts.
But it’s the bigger payday in five weeks – the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (Grade I) at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 – that has trainer Ian Wilkes smiling.
“I think this race is going to help us a lot,” Wilkes said. “You see he got a little tired at the end and we needed this race. … I needed this race today to get to where I want to be. I’m not taking anything away from any of the other horses here, but I wasn’t 100-percent today. I wanted this race to move forward off of.”
Fort Larned bumped the side of the gate from stall four at the start but Hernandez got him to sprint clear into the first turn while angling to the rail. The big bay went the first quarter mile in :23.50 and the half in :47.15 without any pressure from the competition down the backstretch. He opened up a 5 ½-length lead into the final turn and managed a comfortable lead down the stretch as he was kept to the task by Hernandez. Windswept angled out with a furlong to run and closed well late for second.
"We got the performance we needed out of him,” Hernandez said. “He went around there and did his job and galloped out really good. Now we’re ready to go to California. He got a little tired, but I went ahead and I made him gallop-out pretty good so we can have him at a 100 percent for the big one.”
Fort Larned, the odds-on 1-5 favorite, paid $2.60, $2.20 and $2.10. Windswept, ridden by Corey Lanerie, returned $4.40 and $3.60. Worldly, with David Flores in the saddle, finished another 2 ¼ lengths back in third and paid $6. Agent Di Nozzo, Prayer for Relief and Pool Play completed the order of finish. Golden Ticket was scratched.
This was the second dominating performance by Fort Larned at Churchill Downs this year. In June, he was a dazzling 6 ¼-length victor in the $536,300 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI).
His two Churchill Downs triumphs are the only wins from five starts since winning the $4,545,000 Breeders’ Cup Classic by a half-length over Mucho Macho Man last November
HOMECOMING CLASSIC QUOTES
IAN WILKES, trainer of FORT LARNED (winner): “That was good. He was a different horse today. He was very quiet in the paddock. I didn’t know what to think. Charlie (LoPresti)’s horse ran good. I think this race is going to help us a lot. You see he got a little tired at the end and we needed this race. I missed the last race in the Woodward and I needed this race today to get to where I want to be. I’m not taking anything away from any of the other horses here, but I wasn’t 100-percent today. I wanted this race to move forward off of.”
BRIAN HERNANDEZ JR., jockey on FORT LARNED (winner): “We got the performance we needed out of him. He went around there and did his job and galloped out really good. Now we’re ready to go to California. He got a little tired, but I went ahead and I made him gallop-out pretty good so we can have him at a 100 percent for the big one.”
Q: Charlie LoPresti thought that in another couple of jumps Windswept had you … “Yeah, it looked like that on TV, but if you watched the gallop-out, when Corey (Lanerie) got to me at the wire, Fort Larned went on again. I think he was kind of playing around. Just before the wire he kind of threw his ears back up and was just waiting on horses.”
CHARLIE LOPRESTI, trainer of WINDSWEPT (runner-up): “When Corey (Lanerie) got to the three-eighths pole and he said ‘I’m just sitting on him.’ He said, ‘When I asked him to run, he just took off.’ If we’d just been a little closer or somebody had pressed him (Fort Larned), I think we could have won the race. I think he’s a good horse. Believe me, two more jumps and he had him. He was flying.”
Q: Are you surprised at all by the strength of his effort? “This horse is a good horse. When Corey asked him, he was just flying. I’m happy with him. I’ll be back in the Clark.”
NOTE: The $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) will be run at Churchill Downs on Friday, Nov. 29. Lopresti won the Clark in 2011 with Wise Dan and saddled Successful Dan to win the race in 2010, but was disqualified and placed third.
COREY LANERIE, rider of WINDSWEPT (second): “He ran an awesome race. When I left the gate, my instructions were to kind of let him break. The last time he was close to a 46 (seconds half-mile split). But I was laying fourth and I saw three of them up there and thought that was even better. We were just sitting there and he fired big coming home. At about the eighth-pole I thought Fort Larned was coming back a little more than he did and I thought I had a chance at him. What a great effort he put in.”