In his final serious preparation for the June 15 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (gr. I), Fort Larned breezed five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 over Churchill Downs' muddy main track June 10.
Janis R. Whitham's homebred, who won the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), worked under Brian Hernandez Jr., in fractions of :13 4/5, :26 2/5, :38 1/5 and :49 4/5. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:14 3/5.
Trainer Ian Wilkes is hoping his charge can get untracked in the Stephen Foster Handicap after a winless start to his 2013 campaign. In his 2013 debut in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) in March, Fort Larned stumbled at the start, unseating Hernandez, and proceeded to race around the track without a rider and finished well in front of the field.
"You can jump up and down and scream and holler all you want, but it's part of racing," Wilkes said. "You go from the highest of highs to the low of thinking he could have finished his career. He could have hurt himself real bad. It was a sigh of relief when he came back fine. The important thing was that he was OK and Brian was OK.
"When you get to a grade I race, they don't just hand them to you," Wilkes said. "I wish they would hand it to us, but they're not going to do it. That's the challenge. Fort Larned has to step up to the plate and become the big dog again. That's what he's got to do."
In his second start this year in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II), the son of E Dubai finished fifth as the 1-2 favorite in the field of 10. Wilkes said he expected a better performance.
"He didn't show any signs of being fatigued and I thought he was on top of his game," Wilkes said. "I was a little surprised.
"You never know until you get back to the races," Wilkes said. "That's the biggest key. His works have been really good--solid and crisp. And the horse looks really good. After the stumble and the bad race, I had to regroup. I had to get it together and this is our start for the second half of the year to get things going."
Fort Larned, who is likely to be the co-starting highweight with Successful Dan at 121 pounds, won the Breeders' Cup Classic in gate-to-wire fashion, but Wilkes said he won't necessarily go to the front in the Stephen Foster.
"You just don't know until you see how you draw and see exactly who is in the race," Wilkes said. "I know we're thinking it'll be six horses, but entries haven't closed and someone could come in that could change the whole race. The main thing is that I'm just going to focus on my horse right now. When we see the post draw and see who is in there, then we'll get a game plan together."
Wilkes, former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, said Fort Larned, who in addition to the Breeders' Cup Classic won last year's Whitney Handicap (gr. I), Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III) and Skip Away (gr. III), ranks as one of the most talented horses he's worked with in his career.
"You can't compare him to Unbridled or Street Sense because he's a different type of horse," Wilkes said. "But, in his own way, he ranks right up there with them."
The Foster is one of five graded stakes races Saturday and will be run under lights. The first of 11 races will be at 6 p.m. (EDT) and the Foster is scheduled as race 8 at 9:39 p.m.