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Ian Wilkes scaled one of racing’s tallest peaks in 2012 with Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned and the Australian-born conditioner will try to continue on the road to the Kentucky Derby in Saturday’s Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. Wilkes will send out the highly regarded McCraken in the $250,000 stakes for 3-year-olds and we thought we’d dig into the archives of The Saratoga Special to take a look back at another memorable victory by Fort Larned in the 2012 Whitney at Saratoga.

Battle Test
Fort Larned steps up in Grade 1 

By Sean Clancy 

Ian Wilkes walked into the winner’s circle and smiled, content and relieved.

“He’s a good horse, I always thought he was a Grade 1 …”

The trainer didn’t finish the thought. He didn’t need to, Fort Larned finished it minutes earlier with a dominant win the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational, streaking to a calculated 1 1/4-length win over a rallying pair of Bill Mott runners, Ron The Greek and Flat Out.

Bred and owned by Janis Whitham, the son of E Dubai won his seventh career

 race and first Grade 1 stakes, finishing 9 furlongs in 1:47.76. Brian Hernandez angled the only 4-year-old in the field from the outside, slicing in front of a four-horse phalanx, and finding a perfect spot in third, sitting just off Endorsement and Trickmeister as they posted the first quarter-mile in 23.42 seconds. Through a half in 46.97, Endorsement galloped along in front, Trickmeister tracked him, Fort Larned relaxed his long steady stride in third, so easy, he elicited a “cruising” comment from announcer Tom Durkin. Rule, Hymn Book, Caixa Eletronica and Hunters Bay formed a cluster while Flat Out tracked them and favorite Ron The Greek lagged well off his stablemate.

After three quarters in 1:10.86, Endorsement and Trickmeister teamed up and Hernandez anteed up, gunning Fort Larned three wide past the leaders and setting sail for home.

Fort Larned opened a quick and decisive gap on the closers, roaring out of the turn as Flat Out and Ron The Greek circled wide around the turn. Fort Larned passed Endorsement and Trickmeister like they were street signs, slipping past them and angling to the rail with a 5-length advantage past the eighth pole. Hernandez, in his first ride at Saratoga this summer, snuck a look at the infield big screen, saw the margin, pumped his right fist several times, gearing down Fort Larned to a deceiving 1 1/4-length score.

Fort Larned won for the fifth time since Wilkes added blinkers and returned the big bay to the dirt. The win put him among the best of a handicap division open for the taking as two-time Grade 1 winner Ron The Greek ran hard but couldn’t reel in the winner and Flat Out, making his second start for Mott, closed ground but lost his sixth straight race since taking last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Two-for-nine into November of his 3-year-old season, Fort Larned dominated an off-the-turf allowance at Churchill Downs, giving Wilkes encouragement as the homebred went to Tampa Bay Downs for the winter. There, he finished fourth in a handicap before winning the Challenger, a $60,000 stakes. He upset the Grade 3 Skip Away at Gulfstream Park in his next start, finished second in the Grade 2 Alysheba and attracted support in his first Grade 1 start in the Stephen Foster. The positive trajectory stopped abruptly, as Fort Larned pulled hard and stopped to finish last, 12 lengths behind Ron The Greek.

Wilkes takes full blame for that one.

“I had too pretty a horse that day, he should have been in a show ring that day, he was too pretty, he wasn’t ready,” Wilkes said. “This time, I wanted to have him ready, I wanted to show everyone that he belongs in Grade 1 races.”

Wilkes wheeled Fort Larned back in two weeks after the Foster, flying to Prairie Meadows for the Grade 3 Cornhusker.

Hernandez met him there and the duo won for the third time, sauntering on the lead to upset Successful Dan. Wilkes knew he was back on track.

“I got a good work in the Stephen Foster and went to the Cornhusker, so I was ready when I came here,” Wilkes said. “If I had to wait from that bad race to here, that wouldn’t have done any good.”

Wilkes knew the Cornhusker was make or break for him and Fort Larned.

“The decision was having an owner who’s game to take a shot. Coming off a bad race, wheeling back in two weeks. I explained it all to Mrs. Whitham and (her son) Clay and they said, ‘Let’s roll the dice. Let’s go,’ ” Wilkes said. “It worked out good, it made me look like a genius, I could have come back with egg on my face. I knew where I was, I knew my horse, I knew what I had done wrong, he wasn’t ready for the Stephen Foster. I had a very pretty horse, I did not do the job. He made a lot of mistakes, running off, too fresh, he never relaxed, he wanted to over run. It wasn’t him.”

The Whitney was him.

Like Superman’s cape, Fort Larned was there every time Hernandez needed him. Speed to clear four horses inside him, check. Composure to relax off the two leaders, check. Acceleration to get first run on the closers, check. Stamina to keep going once clear, check.

“The race set up perfectly. From the outside I was able to get him over to the three path and just coast along. Going into the five-eighths pole I was just cruising right along really confidently. Turning for home he just switched leads and sprinted home away from them,” Hernandez said. “When I looked up at the big screen, opened up so fast I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ Because I thought he would run big but I didn’t think he would run away from those horses like he did. He did it.”

They did it – a 26-year-old Cajun riding a 4-year-old Kentucky bred, trained by a 47-year-old Australian for an 80-year-old Kansas cattle baroness in the 85th running of the Whitney Invitational Handicap.

“It’s surreal right now,” Hernandez said. “You grow up watching the races, watching Saratoga, you see the Whitney and all these great horses like Easy Goer and all this and then one day you get there. I don’t think it’s really sunken in yet that I just won the Whitney.”