Trainer Ian Wilkes regaled Fort Larned’s 4-year-old campaign last year as a string of wonderful surprises. "We knew he was a good horse. He was getting physically stronger and maturing, but it was like a light turned on inside him. He went from being a boy to a man almost overnight. If you told me he’d win the Breeders’ Cup Classic though, I probably wouldn’t have believed it – everything went just perfectly."
This year’s campaign has not gone quite as "perfectly." Fort Larned’s first race back in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, resulted in a bad stumble at the gate, losing rider Brian Hernandez. Wilkes still finds it hard to talk about the race.
"I still have nightmares about it – he fell hard on his face and planted Brian in the dirt. He got up and was galloping out there loose during the race - it was terrifying . All I wanted was to get him back in the barn safely - We were so lucky he didn’t get seriously hurt or killed! While he seemed ok, his next race was sub-par and we debated long and hard about his future racing. We got back to his home base of Churchill Downs and it was the horse who told us that he wanted to keep running!"
Fort Larned’s 7-length victory in The Grade I Stephen Foster was eye-popping and was officially described in the race chart as "unchallenged, gallantly." That race reassured the connections that their champion was back and a plan was then developed for Fort Larned, with the return to the Breeders’ Cup Classic as the goal.
A second set back happened again after Grade I Whitney Handicap in Saratoga.
"He was training great and we went into the race very confident. His performance was ‘ok’ and we were left scratching our heads. He seemed to come out of the race well, but there was just something not right and if you didn’t know the horse, you would have likely dismissed it. Turns out he did have some kind of muscle strain. We worked on it like you would a human athlete – massage, ice, electric stimulation – and light exercise. "
Patience and treatments allowed Fort Larned to recover from that minor injury, and the horse confidently communicated that he was fine with another solid victory at Churchill Downs in the Homecoming Classic Stakes at Churchill Downs.
"He’s actually training better now after that race," Wilkes said with a bit of a sheepish grin, "I think he knows he’s got something to prove and he’s getting ready to do it."
When asked who he thought his competition would be, Wilkes shrugged, "I’m concerned about all of them! I’m worried about Game on Dude because of Mike Smith. We don’t know how good Graydar is at this point but he’s been impressive in everything he’s been in thus far. I’m glad that Ron the Greek got his big win a few weeks ago in the Gold Cup as he might not put two together, and I think Flat Out had his one bad race and will now be ready. With so much speed in the race, Mucho Macho Man could just run us all down. So, I think I just mentioned everyone in the race– I don’t take anyone for granted – it’s impossible to handicap so I’ll just focus on my own horse," Wilkes snickered.
Fort Larned continues to train aggressively at Churchill Downs and Ian said he plans to ship the horse as late as possible. The horse is scheduled to arrive at Santa Anita on the 29th this month and he will only have gallops on the surface prior to the race. Regardless of the outcome, the Breeders’ Cup Classic will be Fort Larned’s final race. Plans for his stud career are still being negotiated and formalized.
"He’s been the horse of a lifetime but don’t plan on him retiring with a whimper. We are going with guns loaded! I’m not trading places with anyone – they will have to take the title from us fair and square."