Last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned tuned up for a run in Saturday's $175,000 Homecoming with a five-furlong breeze Sept. 23 at Churchill. Janis R. Whitham's 5-year-old son of E Dubai cruised the distance under the track's lights in 1:02 2/5.
"I wasn't looking for anything sharp. I didn't want to break any records," said trainer Ian Wilkes. "It's the way he did it. He relaxed early and (regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr.) let him punch. The horse is ready. He finished up good, got home good and galloped out strong. We're ready to go."
Fort Larned's lone win in four races since last year's Breeders' Cup Classic triumph at Santa Anita Park was a sizzling 6 1/2-length victory in Churchill Downs' Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), contested at the Homecoming distance of 1 1/8 miles June 15. He will face six rivals in the Homecoming Classic, his final prep for a planned defense of his Breeders' Cup Classic win Nov. 2 at Santa Anita.
The race will be Fort Larned's first since a disappointing fifth-place finish in the $750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course. Fort Larned skipped a planned start in the Woodward (gr. I) at Saratoga in late August because of a muscle strain. Wilkes elected to keep Fort Larned home at Churchill Downs for the Homecoming Classic rather than travel to Belmont Park for Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational (gr. I).
"I don't have to ship," Wilkes said. "The ultimate goal is to get to the Breeders' Cup."
Fort Larned will be a heavy favorite to win the Homecoming Classic, but the first-year race attracted six rivals. Five of the six are stakes winners and two of those, Pool Play and Golden Ticket, have won grade I stakes events. Golden Ticket could opt for the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) on the same day at Santa Anita Park, where he also is entered.
"It's a solid race," Wilkes said. "There's some hard-knocking horses in there."
In the $100,000 Jefferson Cup, Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) third-place finisher Redwood Kitten and Arlington Classic (gr. III) winner General Election head a competitive field of nine 3-year-olds.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Redwood Kitten is likely to vie for favoritism after a good third in the $251,250 Del Mar Derby behind Gabriel Charles and Gervinho Sept. 1. The Wesley Ward trainee, who has done his best running on the front end, won the $100,000 James W. Murphy at Pimlico Race Course on the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) undercard in May and was fifth in the $500,000 Virginia Derby (gr. IIT) at Colonial Downs in June.
Redwood Kitten, a two-time winner and earner of $167,050 from 11 starts, will break from the inside hedge under high-percentage rider Ricardo Santana Jr., who rides the Kitten's Joy gelding for the first time.
Redwood Kitten isn't the only horse with a fondness of being forwardly placed in the early stages of a race. Saratoga maiden winner and first-level allowance runner-up Rapscallion, trained by Graham Motion; Balino, runaway winner of Calder's $72,200 Naked Greed in early August; and Miceli, second to Sayaad in Saratoga's $100,000 Dance of Life Aug. 21 for trainer Adam Kitchingman, all have displayed front-running tactics.
That may bode well for WinStar Farm's General Election, who rallied to win the $150,000 Arlington Classic (gr. IIIT) in May. Overall, he's won three of nine starts and a field-best $218,110 with a pair of seconds, including a runner-up effort behind Winning Cause in the $200,000 Coolmore Lexington (gr. III) on Polytrack at Keeneland.