Welcome back, champ! OK, technically Fort Larned is not a champion in the traditional sense, but anyone who saw his courageous front-running effort in last November’s Breeders’ Cup Classic knows that he was America’s most accomplished older dirt horse in 2012. That’s a distinction that usually garners at least one Eclipse Award, but alas, things did not break his way with the voters. No matter, Fort Larned is not only ready to make his return to the races in Saturday’s Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, but he also looks to embark on a new season as an even more formidable version than the one that won a pair of stakes in Florida this time last year.
All reports out of the Palm Meadows Training Center have been positive. After a brief freshening, Fort Larned has had a series of works designed to shake off any rust, and to also build a foundation of readiness for his first start of the season. His final work before Saturday’s feature, which will be run at one mile, came this morning with a five-furlong leg stretcher in 1:01.30. On a recent trip to Florida, I had the opportunity to spend some time observing the attractive bay, and I can happily report that he looked the absolute picture of health.
Often considered an underdog in some of America’s biggest races last year, things will be decidedly different for the 5-year-old son of E Dubai this year. No longer a dark horse, Fort Larned is now one of the big dogs. Fans will flock to see him run, connections will take extra pleasure in knocking him off with their charges, and racing secretaries will show him due respect. Initial evidence of this can be seen in the weight assignments for his first start since winning the Classic. Fort Larned was assigned 124 pounds Gulfstream Park Handicap, which means he will be spotting his opponents between 6 and 11 pounds when rider Brian Hernandez takes a leg up on Saturday.
In his typical nonchalant style, his trainer Ian Wilkes remarked, “He’s a big, strong horse, so I’m fine with it.”
The flat mile trip can sometimes be a tricky distance, especially for a horse that excels at longer distances, so despite the expected short field, it is no forgone conclusion that the big horse will be a winner on Saturday. His biggest threat ironically should come from a horse with a very similar name. Fort Loudon is a multiple stakes winner for trainer Nick Zito, who is well proven around one-turn. He also enters the meeting with Fort Larned coming off what was arguably the finest performance of his career, having taken the seven furlong Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship in his last start. Loudon may have the sharpness edge, but of course it is Larned who wins this race if he is close to his best. He is also no stranger to the South Florida oval.
Gulfstream is a track that the Janis Whitham owned star has performed well at in the past. Back in 2011, this is where he broke his maiden, which coincidentally came at one mile. He also scored his very first graded stakes win at Gulfstream Park, easily accounting for the Grade 3 Skip Away just less than a year ago. That win was one of five for Fort Larned last year, as he also captured the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga, as well as the Grade 3 Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows. You already know how he closed out the year. Did I mention that he was the most accomplished older horse on dirt last year? Welcome back, champ!