“It’s always disappointing when you have a horse with so much promise. But I’m very fortunate to get him back. It was a serious injury. But they did a good job with the surgery and his recovery. The aftercare was great,” Wilkes said. “You have to look at it a different way. Yes, it was disappointing, but I’m lucky to have the horse back now.
With Fort Larned recently retired to stallion duty at Adena Springs in Kentucky, Wilkes is hopeful that Neck ‘n Neck can become a force in the handicap ranks this season.
“He’s got all the attributes to do that. He’s got the talent,” said Wilkes, whose colt has won 5 races, including the Indiana Derby (G2), and $687,852 in purses. “He’s won a Grade 2. He’s just got to step up a little bit more to be a Grade 1 horse.
Neck ‘n Neck is scheduled to step back into stakes company Sunday at Gulfstream Park for the $100,000 Harlan’s Holiday. The 1 1/16-mile stakes will be his second start back off the long layoff. In his first start back, the Kentucky-bred 4-year-old closed from well off the pace to finish a close third in an Indiana Downs stakes on Oct. 5.
“I was very pleased that he came off such a long layoff and got beat by just a length,” Wilkes said.
Neck ‘n Neck had been targeted to run in the Clark Handicap (G1) on Nov. 29, but Wilkes was unable to find a prep race for the Churchill Downs handicap.
“I wasn’t going to take on Will Take Charge and Game on Dude without a prep race,” said Wilkes of the horses that went on to finish 1-2 in the Clark.
The Harlan’s Holiday is a traditional prep for the Donn Handicap (G1) at Gulfstream on Feb. 8, but Wilkes hesitates to look ahead too far in the future with Neck ‘n Neck.
“We’ll take it one race of a time,” Wilkes said. “We’re starting off a new season with him. Let’s take it one race at a time and see if he comes out OK. Definitely, we’d like to look at the Donn.”
Neck ‘n Neck, who’ll be ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., drew the No. 1 post position in a field of eight that includes a pair of rivals coming off back-to-back victories.
Csaba, who captured last year’s Harlan’s Holiday by nearly four lengths, is coming off a pair of victories at Calder since finishing second in the $100,000 Quality Road at Gulfstream on Oct. 5.
“He obviously likes this time of year,” trainer Phil Gleaves said. “I’m looking forward to running him on Sunday.”
River Seven will seek his third straight stakes score after winning the $100,000 Labeeb at Woodbine and the $100,000 Commonwealth Turf (G3) at Churchill. The Harlan’s Holiday will be only the second start on dirt for River Seven, who finished second over the Fort Erie main track in the $500,000 Prince of Wales, the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.
“I’ve always wanted to try him again on dirt, even though he’s won his last two on turf,” trainer Nick Gonzalez said. “It’s one of the reasons we brought him here: to run him on dirt. He’s always trained well over this racetrack. We’ve had this race in our plans.”
Bourbon Courage, who hasn’t won since capturing the $500,000 Super Derby (G2) in September 2012, figures to make a strong bid for victory in the Harlan’s Holiday after finishing a late-charging fourth in the Clark.
“He hasn’t won for a while. I’d like to see the horse get his confidence back,” trainer Kellyn Gorder said. “It seems like he’s in great shape now. He’s matured a lot mentally. We’re hoping this is the year.
Purple Egg, Sr. Quisqueyano, Reveron and Joshua’s Comprise round out the Harlan’s Holiday field.