Photo: Don August / Horse Racing Nation
Each week I make the call for ZATT’s Star of the Week, a celebration of the horse with the best performance of the previous seven days. Sunday night, 24 hours after the conclusion of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, I really did not have that much trouble in tabbing Wise Dan for the award over Royal Delta, Groupie Doll, and … Fort Larned. I figured that the horse that had just impressively clinched the Horse of the Year, in my eyes, was the way to go. Now, after several days of digesting what I saw at Santa Anita, I’m having second thoughts. Not about Wise Dan as Horse of the Year, I truly believe he is most deserving, but rather, of which horse accomplished the most at the Breeders’ Cup. This morning, I ask, why not Fort Larned?
I guess I should not be surprised, though, as someone that has pushed for the son of E Dubai to get more respect with the racing public over the past several months; I realize I am just as guilty as anyone of not believing in him as much as I should. Perhaps that is exactly what his connections wanted, though.
“It's always nice to fly under the radar and not be with the bullseye on your back, so that helps,” said trainer, Ian Wilkes. “No one, I don't think, was too worried about us coming off our last race. We could do what we wanted to do and? without having that bullseye.”
My respect for him has been relatively short lived. I discounted his chances going into the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes, but a bang-up second place finish opened my eyes; if only just a little. Never mind what he had already done in Florida. I mean it wasn’t like I missed seeing the 1 3/16 mile, Grade 3 Skip Away Stakes back at the end of March. Ignored at 12-1, all Fort Larned did was press solid fractions, before surging clear to win by a strong 2 ½ lengths in track record time of 1:53.92. In all honesty, there was a horse in there that I thought might be primed to do big things in 2012, but it sure wasn’t the winner … Where's Sterling checked in fourth, beaten nearly 20 lengths by Fort Larned.
Maybe winning trainer Ian Wilkes already knew back then what I and so many others were entirely clueless about, "The horse has really improved," Wilkes said. "He's four and he's just maturing.”
I was watching on a summer evening in late June when the Janis Whitham owned colt took Iowa by storm. In the Cornhusker, reunited with rider Brian Hernandez Jr., who had ridden him to a big allowance the previous fall, Fort Larned took full advantage of his early speed to lead the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows field on a merry chase, before decisively turning away a bid from heavily favored Successful Dan to win the nine furlong race by three lengths in the sparkling time of 1:47.42. Despite this, Fort Larned was overshadowed on the race card. The race before, the great white hope, Hansen, absolutely destroyed an overmatched Iowa Derby field. While the three-year-old was flashier, it was Fort Larned who ran the faster and better race on that night, but still I wondered, what if Successful Dan had more to speed to run at that night.
And so it went … I liked him in the Whitney, but Ron the Greek was my top pick. What I saw with my own eyes that day at Saratoga was a comprehensive performance. Tractable enough to sit off the early pace of Endorsement and Trickmeister, Fort Larned and Hernandez waited to pounce, and when they did, the race was put away quicker than could be. Before I knew it, he was four lengths clear, and the late runs of Ron the Greek and Flat Out seemed little more than an afterthought. His winning time for the nine furlongs was 1:47.76, and his Beyer rating of 110, in the Grade 1, bested his troika of 108’s from the Skip Away, Alysheba, and Cornhusker.
Fort Larned was actually my top choice in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but only because Mucho Macho Man was not in the race. Trying to rate him a little too much in his first 1 ¼ race was probably his undoing, but a solid third place finish turned out to be the perfect prep for the big one. He was primed to become the third consecutive BC Classic winner coming directly out of a JCGC defeat.
“When you got a horse, you know, that keeps getting better and better every time you take him over there, it makes my job easier. The thing about it every time this horse went in the gate, he's always brought his "A" race for us.”
That quote from Ian Wilkes actually came from after the huge victory at Santa Anita, but he might has well have said it at any point over the last eight months. That’s another thing about Fort Larned; he raced all year long. Nine races, and five wins, you can say he danced every dance. The South, Midwest, East and West, he won in every region, and he saved the best for last.
”Fort Larned – When he won the Whitney at Saratoga, I thought he looked good in the paddock and on the track … he looked even better this morning.” How pretentious of me to quote myself, but you could just tell BC week that he was sitting on a big one.
In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I bet him as much as Mucho Macho Man, but of course, Triple M was the one I announced as my top pick. It seems I believed in Fort Larned, but still only to a point. It’s one of those, “He’s really good, but there is always someone out there just a little bit better,” kind of deals. Now nearly six days after the Ian Wilkes charge dug in down the Santa Anita stretch to hold Mucho Man Man safely at bay, I am beginning to fully appreciate how good the race was, and how good the 9-1 winner is.
“He was gaining on us, but when he seen the horse coming he dug back in and even galloping out, Mucho Macho Man wasn't able to get past us,” said Hernandez.
Yes, Brian, I truly believe if they went around again, Fort Larned would have been your 2012 Breeder’s Cup Classic champion.
Fort Larned is a champion. There I said it; he is, after all, the best dirt horse in America. I believe he has accomplished enough this year for me to say that.
For Janis Whitham, a longtime supporter of racing, who now has another champion to go along with the great, Bayakoa. For Ian Wilkes, a trainer who now stands near the top of my, if I had a horse, I would want him to train list, and for Brian Hernandez, the young rider, who for so long I held against him one bad ride on one of my favorites, the Classic was a culmination of a lifetime of trying. Fort Larned, in two minutes at Santa Anita, brought them everything.
This morning, as I look ahead to 2013, I am reminded of one more quote from Fort Larned’s likeable trainer after his final Breeders’ Cup work, “He went really well and I was very pleased with him,” Wilkes said. “I hope we haven’t seen the best of him yet. The hope is that he’ll be at his peak next week.”
Next week and beyond, Mr. Wilkes ... Fort Larned will be back next year as a five-year-old, and I, for one, believe!