Janis R. Whitham's Fort Larned led from gate to wire and held off a sustained stretch bid by Mucho Macho Man to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) before a crowd of 55,123 at Santa Anita Park Nov. 3 (VIDEO).
In one of the most thrilling races in Classic history, the Ian Wilkes-trained Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) winner raced the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.11 on a fast track and gave jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. a treasured 27th birthday present.
The winner, a 4-year-old son of E Dubai produced from the Broad Brush mare Arlucea, paid $20.80, $9.80, and $6.80. Mucho Macho Man, in a game effort under Mike Smith, finished a half-length behind the winner and returned $6.60 and $4.60. Flat Out , who finished 6 1/2 lengths back in third under Joel Rosario, paid $5.20. The $1 exacta was worth $62.70.
In winning the Classic, Fort Larned earned $2.7 million to increase his bankroll to $3,681,236, and improved his record to 8-2-1 from 19 career starts.
The Classic was expected to play into the hands of Game On Dude, the Bob Baffert-trained son of Awesome Again who appeared to have a home track advantage by virtue of his 5-for-5 record at Santa Anita.
But it did not take long for the race to become a two-horse race as Fort Larned rolled to the front the first time down the stretch while being track by Mucho Macho Man and To Honor and Serve. Rounding the first turn, the leaders stopped the timer in a moderate :23.20 and continued to lead up the backstretch with a half-mile completed in :46.50.
The pace quickened rounding the turn as Much Macho Man took aim at Fort Larned and those two engaged in an exciting stretch duel. Fort Larned, on the inside, was not to be deterred on this day, and won by a half-length.
"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 (Hernandez) won the race. We broke sharp and Game On Dude broke bad. I trust Brian because the horse trusts Brian."
"It's the greatest birthday ever," said Hernandez. "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."
"What can you do?" asked Kathy Ritvo, who trains Macho Mucho Man. "He ran a winning race. 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)," said Smith, the all-time leading rider of Breeders' Cup races. "Not for me, but for Kathy. 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. 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."
"They ran good," trainer Bill Mott said of Ron the Greek, Flat Out, and To Honor and Serve. "We came out of the turn and the first two horses (Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man) didn't back up. Ron the Greek put in a run, and Flat Out put in a good run, but the first two horses just kept motoring. I don't think we have any huge excuse. To Honor and Serve backed up. He was laying right off the hip of Mucho Macho Man and he folded."
"I had a perfect trip," Rosario said of Flat Out. "He was so relaxed all the way around there, even in that big field. We got a good spot and I was waiting for the time. Then when I asked, he kicked it in. He ran well through the stretch, but those two in front of us (Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man), they were better today. Today it was them."
Trainer Bob Baffert said Game On Dude needed to be closer to the leaders early.
"I think the first eighth of a mile cost him the race," Baffert said. "He wants to be right up there near the front and when he wasn't, that was it for him. It was unfortunate. It was a tough day for me, but I've had tougher. It really was a tough week. But what are you going to do? It was a great two days of racing here and I was glad to be part of it.
"When these things happen, when things are hard, you've just got to move on. A few minutes ago Joe Torre (part owner of Game On Dude) told me that you've got to forget it. Things that happened five seconds ago, you've got to let them go and move on. That's what will happen."
"He broke from the gate so well," said Rafael Bejarano, who rode Game On Dude. "They rushed up past us, but that didn't matter. I got a good spot and made him comfortable. We were right where I wanted to be, and at the three-eighths (pole) he gave me his move. And then, all of a sudden, he was flat; totally out of gas. I don't know why. I can't understand it and I can't explain it."
Bred in Kentucky by his owner, Fort Larned began his 2012 campaign with a fourth in handicap company and a win in the listed Challenger Stakes, both at Tampa Bay Downs. Elevated in class, Fort Larned won the grade III Skip Away Stakes before finishing second to Successful Dan in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) at his home track of Churchill Downs.
After an eighth-place effort in Churchill's Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), Hernandez got back aboard Fort Larned for a grade III win the Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III) at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino. Previous to the Breeders' Cup was the Whitney victory and a third to Flat Out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).