Fort Larned rewarded his connections' faith with a scintillating victory in Saturday's $4,545,000 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, holding off a game Mucho Macho Man to score by a half-length on the wire.
The Janis R. Whitham homebred gave trainer Ian Wilkes and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. their first Breeders' Cup wins, as well as helped Hernandez celebrate his 27th birthday in style.
"It's the greatest birthday ever," Hernandez beamed. "I always had a lot of confidence in him. Ian and I talked about the race and he told me don't take him out of his game and let him do whatever he wants to do. He has a good cruising speed and I just let him go."
"We had to be there near the front and he was ready today," Wilkes said. "He had galloped great over the track. I knew we were good when he broke sharp. That's where Brian won the race. We broke sharp and Game on Dude broke bad. I trust Brian because the horse trusts Brian.
"Buff (Bradley) won (the Filly & Mare Sprint with Groupie Doll) and Charlie (Lopresti) won (the Mile with Wise Dan), and now I won. There was some pressure there after they won. I'm glad we all three did it, because we're such great friends. We hit the trifecta," Wilkes laughed.
The success of Fort Larned is especially poignant for Whitham, for she had campaigned his granddam, Bayakoa, with her late husband, Frank.
"Larned is a town," Whitham explained her Classic winner's name. "We live in Kansas and it's east and a little north of us and it has been rebuilt, and it's a tourist attraction, and Fort Larned is still there and he is named after that fort. And he has a half-brother named after an old fort north of us, Fort Wallace.
"It's great, couldn't compare any better. It's great," she added when asked to compare Fort Larned's Breeders' Cup win to Bayakoa's back-to-back scores in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Fort Larned slipped under the radar this week, with much of the pre-race focus centered on local 6-5 favorite Game on Dude.
"It's always nice to fly under the radar and not be with the bull's eye on your back, so that helps," Wilkes said about being overlooked. "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 bull's eye."
"Riding for these guys has been great because they don't put any pressure on me," Hernandez added. "And going into a race like this we didn't have the bull's eye on our back, so we were able to let our horse do what he wanted to do, and that's what we did today."
Fort Larned quickly proved a force to be reckoned with when taking command of the Classic before the field had reached the first turn. Tracked throughout by Mucho Macho Man, the bay colt posted fractions of :23 1/5, :46 2/5, 1:10 and 1:34 3/5.
Mucho Macho Man lost touch for a moment, but then spurted up to challenge Fort Larned entering the stretch. The duo easily drew away from the rest of the field, but Fort Larned would not let his rival past, pulling out the half-length win in a final time of 2:00.
"In the post parade he showed how fired up he was. He was on his game today. We kept him away from the pony and warmed him up good," Hernandez explained his ride.
"When he left the gate, he knew it was business time and he left there as well as he did. And you can't take anything away from him. He's going to be naturally fast and that's what we let him do. Going into the second turn he was able to sprint away from that other horse and he held off the horses down the stretch."
Fort Larned was the 9-1 fifth choice in the 12-horse field and rewarded his backers with payouts of $20.80, $9.80 and $6.80. Paired with Royal Delta's win in the Ladies' Classic on Friday, the 6-4 Classic double was worth $31.
It was another 6 1/2 lengths behind Mucho Macho Man to Flat Out, with Ron the Greek completing the top four under the line. Richard's Kid came next, with Nonios, Game on Dude, Pool Play, Handsome Mike, To Honor and Serve, Brilliant Speed and Alpha rounding out the order of finish.
"What can you do? He ran a winning race," said Kathy Ritvo, who was attempting to become the first female Classic-winning trainer with Mucho Macho Man. "The other horse (Fort Larned) was a great horse today. He ran a great race. Congratulations to Mr. (Ian) Wilkes and his whole team. I'm so proud of my horse. He gave 100 percent today."
"I really, really wanted to win this race for Kathy (Ritvo). Not for me, but for Kathy," jockey Mike Smith sighed. "He was different today. He just ran big. The other horse (Fort Larned) snuck away from me and I wasn't able to keep up with him at that point.
"Brian (Hernandez) has always been a great rider," Smith went on to praise his fellow rider. "He has great hands, I've known him since he started, and I knew he was going to win a race like this some time. I just wish it hadn't been today."
Fort Larned had the credentials for a Classic win entering the race, taking the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga to earn an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup race prior to a third-place run in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in late September. The E Dubai four-year-old earned his first black-type score when capturing the Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs in his second start of the year and quickly followed that with a first graded win in the Grade 3 Skip Away.
Fort Larned kept right on plugging throughout the season, registering a second in the Grade 2 Alysheba before suffering his worse loss of the year when eighth in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster after being carried out and bothered in that nine-furlong contest. He got back on the wining track with a three-length wire job in the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap, and boasts a 5-1-1 mark from nine 2012 starts that saw him crisscross the country while running at seven different tracks in five different states.
"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," Wilkes said. "The thing about it every time this horse went in the gate, he's always brought his 'A' race for us.
"From the Whitney, I had to make a decision how to get him to the Breeders' Cup. I had to make a decision whether I run back in the (Grade 1) Woodward or wait eight weeks to freshen him, then go to the Jockey Club and bring him to the Breeders' Cup. Mrs. Whitham and the family decided to go the second route and the horse came back to his Whitney form today and that's what we were looking for."
Fort Larned's career mark now stands at 19-8-2-1 and the winner's share from the Classic skyrocketed his lifetime bankroll to $3,681,236. While some might have seen this as the perfect swan song for the colt, his connections have different ideas.
"Well, we will let Ian decide that, but we would like to run him and try to do this again," Whitham said when asked about future plans for Fort Larned.
The Kentucky-bred colt comes from a prestigious female family as his granddam is dual champion Bayakoa, who just saw her record as the only two-time winner of the Distaff tied on Friday when Royal Delta defended her title in the Ladies' Classic.
Bayakoa captured 13 total Grade/Group 1s while racking up more than $2.7 million during her time on track. The mare was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1998 and is also the granddam of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Affluent.
Another of Bayakoa's daughters is Fort Larned's dam, the Broad Brush mare Arlucea, who strangely enough has the same exact name as Bayakoa's dam, the Good Manners mare Arlucea.
Fort Larned is half-brother to Izarra, placed in the 2007 editions of the Grade 1 Oak Leaf and Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante, as well as last year's Cliff Guilliams Handicap second Moonport.