Tampa Bay Downs trainer Ian Wilkes admits he never expected his 4-year-old colt Fort Larned to be among the favorites for the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic after his victory in the Challenger Stakes at the Oldsmar oval on March 3.

“I’d be kidding if I said I thought he would get this good,” Wilkes said. “At the beginning of the year, we weren’t talking about the Breeders’ Cup. But he showed a lot of talent early in his career, and as the year went on he got better and better.”

Fort Larned – who will be ridden by Brian Hernandez, Jr. – is the co-second choice for Saturday’s Classic at Santa Anita at odds of 5-1, along with Flat Out. The morning-line favorite in the 12-horse field is 5-year-old gelding Game On Dude, trained by Bob Baffert. The Classic will be televised by NBC at 8:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday.

Bred and owned by Janis R. Whitham, Fort Larned is one of a handful of horses with Tampa Bay Downs connections entered in the two-day, 15-race Breeders’ Cup extravaganza in southern California.

Former leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Willie Martinez will be aboard 3-year-old colt Trinniberg for the $1.5-million Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint, scheduled for 6:58 p.m. EDT on Saturday. Trinniberg, who drew the No. 9 post for the six-furlong, 14-horse event, is 15-1 on the morning line.

Tampa Bay Downs trainer Tom Proctor will send out Glen Hill Farm’s 4-year-old filly Marketing Mix in Friday’s $2-million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Glen Hill and Proctor combined to win the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff with 47-1 shot One Dreamer.

The Filly & Mare Turf field also includes 5-year-old mare Zagora, who won both the Grade III Endeavour and the Grade III Hillsborough last winter at Tampa Bay Downs.

Another Tampa Bay Downs conditioner, William Bradley, will saddle the even-money favorite for Saturday’s $1-million Filly & Mare Sprint, 4-year-old Groupie Doll. Owned by Bradley and his father Fred Bradley in partnership, Groupie Doll enters on a four-race winning streak that includes two Grade I events and a pair of Grade IIs.

Back to Wilkes and Fort Larned. After Fort Larned’s victory under top Tampa Bay Downs jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., in the $60,000 Challenger, Fort Larned returned March 31 to win the Grade III Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream Park in track-record time of 1:53.92 for the 1 3/16-mile distance.

Fort Larned next ran second in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs before encountering a rough trip in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap that led to a disappointing eighth-place finish.

But Wilkes got Fort Larned back on track in a hurry, sending him to Prairie Meadows in Iowa to win the Grade III Cornhusker Handicap by three lengths from Successful Dan.

Fort Larned then vaulted into national prominence by winning the Grade I Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 4 from Stephen Foster winner Ron the Greek and Flat Out. Most recently, Fort Larned finished third in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup on a good Belmont strip on Sept. 29.

For his career, Fort Larned – a son of E Dubai-Arlucea, by Broad Brush – has seven victories from 18 starts and career earnings of $981,236.

“If he runs his race, I believe he is going to have as good a shot as anyone,” Wilkes said. “These kind of races are what you are in the game for, and it makes for fun times.

“Horses know when they win, and he is a very confident horse now,” Wilkes added. “When he turned 4, he went from being a boy to a man, and he has become a much bigger, stronger horse. He has matured a lot mentally and physically he has developed into a big, long-striding, robust horse.”

Wilkes was an assistant under Carl Nafzger when Street Sense won the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Since going on his own, Wilkes saddled Capt. Candyman Can in the 2009 Sprint at Santa Anita and Warrior’s Reward in the 2010 Sprint at Churchill Downs to unplaced finishes.

Wilkes said he used Tampa Bay Downs for Fort Larned’s first two 4-year-old starts because of its renowned beneficial effects on horses. Prior to his Challenger Stakes victory, Fort Larned finished fourth in a $30,000 handicap Feb. 4 in Oldsmar.

“You always want to find the right race at the right time, and Tampa Bay Downs’ (dirt track) is a great surface that is very kind to horses,” Wilkes said. “As a trainer, you are always looking for a kind, fair surface where you can develop your horse – whether it is a front-runner or comes from behind – and that describes Tampa.”

Veteran jockey Martinez also has tremendous regard for Tampa Bay Downs, winning the riding title during the 1991-92 season with a then-record 123 victories.

Martinez picked up the mount on Trinniberg at the outset of the 2012 season for owner Sherry Parbhoo and trainer Shivananda Parbhoo. He has ridden him to victories in the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream; the Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct; and the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont.

Trinniberg also finished 17th in the Grade I Kentucky Derby, second in the Grade III Carry Back at Calder and second in the Gallant Bob at Parx on Sept. 22 in his most recent start.

Although each of Trinniberg’s victories this year were at seven furlongs, Martinez believes he is well-suited to the Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint distance.

“He has had better luck going seven-eighths, but he has also run big going three-quarters (of a mile) and I think that is in his comfort zone,” Martinez said. “He doesn’t have to be on the lead, but he has been in most of his races because he is that fast (out of the gate).

“I’ve gotten to know him and understand him very well, and I felt like once they took the blinkers off (for the Swale) he would be a better horse,” Martinez said. “He is a very talented colt and we are a good fit. He has to prove himself against older horses, but this is the time of year when a lot of 3-year-olds show up, especially for the Breeders’ Cup.”

Martinez rode Noble’s Promise to a third-place finish in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.

“You always want to look at it like it is just another race and not let your emotions take over,” Martinez said. “But of course, it is not just another race, it is the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and these are the fastest horses in the world.”

Amazombie, who won the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, is the morning-line favorite at 4-1.

Saturday’s $1-million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint has drawn a field of 14 horses, including the past two winners of Tampa Bay Downs’ $75,000 Turf Dash Stakes: 2011 winner Bridgetown from the barn of Todd Pletcher and 2012 victor Great Attack, trained by Wesley Ward.

Area fans can watch and wager on the Breeders’ Cup from Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday, as well as enjoying simulcast action from other tracks around the country. Gates open at 11 a.m. each day and admission is free.

Tampa Bay Downs is open throughout the year for simulcast wagering, poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility. The 2012-13 live Thoroughbred season begins Dec. 1.