Ian Wilkes, who saddles morning line favorite Fort Larned in the Aug. 3 Whitney Handicap (gr. I), is looking forward to getting another crack at the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) following last year's gutsy victory over Mucho Macho Man.
Wilkes says he's now concentrating on simply moving forward, but admits he was crushed when Fort Larned lost the Eclipse Award for top older male to Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who also took home the Eclipse for leading male turf horse.
Wilkes, who is close friends with Wise Dan's trainer, Charles LoPresti, admits Wise Dan deserved Horse of the Year honors, but felt strongly that Fort Larned should have gotten the older male award.
"I keep kidding Charlie that I want to hook up with Wise Dan on the dirt this year," Wilkes said on a national teleconference. "Losing the Eclipse Award was gut wrenching. I thought I was the champion older horse. Nine times out of 10 it goes to the dirt horse. I really felt he deserved it and it was a tough thing to accept. It was a backward step, but now I just want to concentrate on my horse. I can't do anything about that; it's out of my control. We just have to go out there and show everyone how good he is.
"I'd love to repeat in the Whitney and in the Breeders' Cup Classic. I'm not even worried about Horse of the Year. I just want to get back to the Breeders' Cup and repeat that."
In the meantime, there is the Whitney to get past, and so far this year has been a roller-coaster ride for Wilkes, owner Janis Whitham, and the son of E Dubai . In his 2013 debut, the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II), he threw the rider at the start as the 4-5 favorite and instead of running along with the pack, he turned in a mad dash well ahead of the field and actually finished a furlong in front of the others.
"He loves to race and he showed everyone that the day he got loose," Wilkes said. "Most horses would have just run with the pack."
In his next start, the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II), Fort Larned just wasn't himself, whether due to the incident at Gulfstream or not. He never showed any interest in running and wound up fifth, beaten 10 1/2 lengths as the 1-2 favorite.
In the Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (gr. I), a race in which he ran horribly last year, he again shocked everyone, this time by demolishing a top-class field by 6 1/4 lengths in a sharp 1:47.45 for the 1 1/8 miles.
"The Foster win was important because last year's Foster was his only hiccup," Wilkes said. "So it was very gratifying to get back on track and show everyone he's not just a one-year wonder. He's more battle-tested now and he's shown he can overcome adversity."
Wilkes said the Whitney is an important race to establish his form and move him forward.
"This is a very good race," Wilkes said. "You've got a new shooter in Cross Traffic, and Todd Pletcher is always dangerous. Then there's my old sparring partner Mucho Macho Man and Successful Dan. And you can't forget about Ron the Greek. This is no easy spot.
"He's coming off a strong work. Normally I just work him on his own, but I put a horse in front of him just to have something to look at, and the horse got away from him. But he picked up the horse without much urging and galloped out strong. That was all I was looking for. It was just important to see how he finished and how he galloped out."
Wilkes said if Fort Larned comes out of the Whitney in good shape, he will seriously consider running him in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 31.
"The Woodward definitely is on my radar," he said. "He's only run three times this year and I like to use races to get to races. Of course, I'd love to win the Whitney again, but looking ahead to the Breeders' Cup it is a prep to help get him there."
And he'd love nothing more than to win the Classic again, especially if it were to come at the expense of the horse who deprived him of an Eclipse Award last year.