Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Fort Larned put his early season problems behind him June 15 as he scored a front-running victory in the $536,300 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (gr. I) at Churchill Downs (VIDEO).
Under the lights, Fort Larned thrived in primetime as he enjoyed a clear advantage at every call and carried that momentum to the wire, completing the 1 1/8-mile handicap race in 1:47.45, less than a fifth of a second off Victory Gallop's 14-year-old track and stakes record of 1:47.28.
The Stephen Foster is a Breeders' Cup Classic "Win and You're In" race, earning Fort Larned a starting berth at Santa Anita Park in defense of his half-length triumph in last year's grade I event.
His 6 1/4-length margin of victory in a field of six was the second-largest in Stephen Foster history, behind only the 6 1/2-length win by Street Cry in 2002.
"He ran unbelievable," said winning trainer Ian Wilkes. "It was gratifying to get the horse back and to prove that he's as good as I thought he was and show he wasn't a one-year wonder."
After a difficult start to the season, Fort Larned and regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. returned to the front-running style they used to win last year's Breeders' Cup Classic.
In his 2013 debut March 9 in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), Fort Larned stumbled at the start, unseating Hernandez. A month later, Fort Larned failed to get the early lead and settled for fifth after a stalking trip in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II).
But under the Churchill Downs lights around 9:40 p.m. EDT, Janis Whitham's homebred son of E Dubai cruised through a half-mile in :46.96 and six furlongs in 1:10.48 while opening up a 2 1/2-length edge over Take Charge Indy . He put away a mild charge from the 9-5 favorite turning for home and was never threatened by runner-up Golden Ticket, dead-heat winner of last year's Travers Stakes (gr. I). Last year's Stephen Foster winner, Ron the Greek, rallied for third.
"I talked with (Wilkes) today and last night and he thought the best plan was to take it to them," Hernandez said. "We were going down the backside and were cooking right along and the poles were going by pretty fast, but he was always doing it well within himself so I wasn't really worried about it. When we turned for home, I pulled the stick through and he switched leads like the Fort Larned of old."
Fort Larned returned $8.60 to win, $5.20 to place, and $3.60 to show. Golden Ticket brought $7.20 and $3.40, while Ron the Greek paid $3.20 to show. Rounding out the field were Successful Dan, who tracked in third early, 2011 Stephen Foster winner Pool Play, and recent Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) winner Take Charge Indy, who faded mid-stretch after racing in second to that point.
Fort Larned secured the third grade I victory of his career—he also won last year's Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course—and improved his career record to 9-2-1 from 22 career starts and earnings of $4,031,417.
Kentucky-bred Fort Larned is the lone stakes winner out of the Broad Brush mare Arlucea, who has produced six starters, all winners, including two stakes-placed runners.
Earlier on the Stephen Foster card, Fort Larned's 3-year-old half brother Lent broke his maiden when the son of Pulpit won the $54,000 fourth race for Whitham, Wilkes, and Hernandez.