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Neck n’ Neck Nearing Comeback Race

Neck'n Neck ridden by Leandro Goncalves and trained by Ian Wilkes take the G3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky Saturday June 16, 2012.
It has been nearly a year since A. Stevens Miles’ multiple stakes winner Neck n’ Neck went to the sidelines while training for a bid for Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I), but a Sunday workout provided solid evidence that the son of Flower Alley could be stepping into a starting gate soon for trainer Ian Wilkes.

The winner of the 2012 Indiana Derby (GII) and Churchill Downs’ Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) and Matt Winn (GIII) breezed five furlongs over a fast track in 1:01.80 on the cool morning under the Twin Spires. Regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. was in the saddle for the move, which ranked as the fifth fasted of 22 at the distance. 

The work was the third five-eighths move in the month of September for the Miles homebred, whose bid for the 2012 Clark Handicap ended when he suffered a season-ending injury during a workout at Churchill Downs. He fractured a sesamoid in a front ankle that required surgery.

Wilkes has handled Neck ‘n Neck very patiently in his return to serious training and was pleased with the colt’s latest move.

“He’s getting closer,” Wilkes said. “He’s been back a few months and I’ve taken my time with him.”

Wilkes had the colt on the 2012 Kentucky Derby trail, running a solid fourth to eventual Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Union Rags before a fifth-place finish behind Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby (GI) prompted Wilkes to step back and hit the reset button with Neck ‘n Neck.

He romped to an easy victory in a Churchill Downs allowance race in May and followed that with a 7 ¼-length romp in the 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn (GIII) over the Louisville track. 

Neck ‘n Neck followed those wins with a runner-up finish to Alpha in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy before a sixth-place run behind dead-heat winners Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Travers (GI).  He rolled from far back to win Hoosier Park’s Indiana Derby before he defeated older rivals in the Ack Ack, a race that appeared to set him up well for the Clark.

The injury changed everything, but Wilkes believes that the post-injury Neck ‘n Neck he has watched in recent weeks has every chance to be the kind of horse his connections believed he would become at three.

“I think he can,” Wilkes said. “He’s given every indication that he can come back just as good.”

Neck ‘n Neck will soon have an opportunity to justify his trainer’s faith. Wilkes indicated the $100,000-added Michael G. Schaefer Memorial Mile at Hoosier Park on Oct. 5 could be the colt’s first start of his long layoff.

“The work was good this morning – nice and solid.” Wilkes said. “I just got to see how he comes out.”

Neck ‘n Neck has a career record of 5-2-0 in 14 races with earnings of $676,856.

Janis Whitham
’s Fort Larned, Wilkes’ stable star and winner of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and 2013 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs, also was on the track Sunday. The 5-year-old son of E. Dubai galloped in first appearance on the track since a half-mile breeze in :49 on Thursday.

The training move was his first since Wilkes announced that a muscle strain would knock Fort Larned out of a planned run in Saratoga’s Aug. 31 Woodward (GI). A defense of his Breeders’ Cup Classic win at Santa Anita is the 2013 objective for Fort Larned, and Wilkes indicated Sunday that a run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) at Belmont Park on Sept. 28 is the most likely spot for his star’s final Classic prep.

Fort Larned also is nominated to Churchill Downs’ first running of the $175,000-added Homecoming Classic, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up, which is scheduled on the same day as the Jockey Club Gold Cup. 


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