Fort Larned , impressive winner of the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III) last time out, became a grade I winner in the Whitney Invitational Handicap when he strutted clear of a strong field Aug. 4 at Saratoga Race Course (VIDEO).
Brian Hernandez Jr., the Kentucky-based rider making his Saratoga debut in the Whitney. guided Janis R. Whitham's homebred to a measured 1 1/4-length victory for trainer Ian Wilkes. The 4-year-old son of E Dubai, who stalked a brisk pace into stretch before taking command in the lane, was sent off at odds of 7-1.
“It’s a huge honor to win the race named for the Whitneys," Wilkes said. "I was very pleased. Brian did a tremendous job; first time over this track. He rode a perfect race and moved him at the right time. He put some open lengths between him and the closers."
Favored Ron the Greek, allowed to tail off way behind a swift tempo in the early stages, rallied to get up for second over his late-running stablemate Flat Out . Bill Mott conditions both the runner-up and third-place finisher. Hymn Book finished fourth.
The final time was a solid 1:47.76 for the 1 1/8-mile distance over a fast track.
Breaking from the outer gate in the field of nine, Fort Larned raced on the outside in third as 32-1 shot Endorsement took the early lead over Trickmeister. Endorsement opened a one-length advantage over his pursuers while clipping off an opening quarter mile in :23.42 and the half in :46.97. The six-furlong time was 1:10.86 as Trickmeister and Fort Larned drew close.
Fort Larned took the lead at the quarter pole and was in command in the stretch to open up a four-length lead at the furlong pole. Hernandez appeared to relax on Fort Larned near the sixteenth pole and then rode Fort Larned late to hold on as the lead quickly diminished. Ron the Greek, circling the field seven wide for Jose Lezcano to take up the chase in the homestretch, closed with willingness along with Flat Out but ran out of time before reaching the wire.
“On the second turn I knew I had a lot of horse," Hernandez said. "I just stayed out of his way and he toted us around there and took us home. I had a lot of confidence in him today.
"Ian called the other day and told me how great he had been training going into this race. The assistant was bragging on him all week. We all just had a lot of confidence in him knowing he would run this kind of race today.”
Ron the Greek nipped Flat Out, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, for second by a head.
"Both horses ran excellent," Mott said of Ron the Greek and Flat Out. "They were head and head coming down the lane, and both horses ran well and tried hard. I think we got parked out a little bit on the turn with Ron the Greek. Last time he had an inside trip and got up by a nose. Today he went around and it cost him that length."
The Whitney is a "Win and You’re In" race for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) to be run Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park. Fort Larend gets his entry fees paid and a $10,000 travel stipend toward the trip to California.
Fort Larned, out of the winning Broad Brush mare Arlucea (a daughter fo Whitham's Hall of Famer Bayakoa), defeated the highly-regarded Successful Dan by three lengths in the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows | BloodHorse.com Track Profile">Prairie Meadows June 30. He earned a 108 Beyer Speed Figure, the best last-race figure in the Whitney field.
Fort Larned earned his fourth win of the year in seven starts for Wilkes. He won the Challenger and Skip Away (gr. III) stakes this spring before dropping a tough decision to Successful Dan in the Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Returning to Churchill for the Stephen Foster (gr. I) June 16, Fort Larned was carried out after pressing the pacesetter Nates Mineshaft and weakened to finish eighth. With the Whitney triumph, Fort Larned more than doubled his career earnings to $881,236 while improving his career mark to 7-2-0 in 17 races.
“This is a free-running horse," Wilkes said. "He can do a lot of things. I always thought he belonged (up there) in the division. You question yourself coming off a race like the Stephen Foster; you got beat, you got your head handed to you there. So you question yourself. But this horse keeps rattling off those 108 Beyer speed figures. He stays consistent.”
Wilkes said the $750,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at 1 1/8 miles Sept. 1 at Saratoga would be a natural follow-up to the Whitney, but added, "Let’s see how he comes out of this.”
Fort Larned carried 117 pounds and paid $16.40, $7, and $4.30 as the fifth choice. Ron the Greek, the 120-pound highweight, returned $3.90 and $2.90, and completed a $76.50 exacta. Flat Out paid $3.40 to show.