Monday, September 23, 2013

Fort Larned Could Win Another Classic and Lose Horse of the Year Crown--Again

Folks who vote for Horse of the Year just had their decision for whoever wins this award made a whole one horse easier when their ballots arrive. With such honors wide open you start to see where trainers place their horses to give them their best shot at winning something iconic, to one day say, as Ra’s Al Ghul so eloquently put it, “I told you I was immortal.”

Which makes it all the more perplexing that Fort Larned, last year’s winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, will forego the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup for an inaugural stakes race at Churchill Downs, the Homecoming Classic. What’s next? The Prom?

A solid chunk of Horse of the Year candidates will spar in the JCGC, namely Orb, Palace Malice, Cross Traffic and Flat Out. If they put together a win at Belmont and a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, they’ll be on the short list. But when Fort Larned faces six—including Golden Ticket, last year’s co-winner of the Travers Stakes—going nine furlongs in an ungraded stake he took himself completely out of consideration even if he wins his next two races.

"Our goal is to try and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic again,” Ian Wilkes said, Fort Larned’s trainer “We want to do what we feel is right for the horse. We keep him here and run him a mile and an eighth. He’s on his track with a one-race ship. Otherwise I’m going to ship to Belmont and ship back again. It just fit into our plans to run him here. If we didn’t have the September Meet and didn’t have this race, we would have gone to the Jockey Club.”

Fort Larned was an impressive winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster back in June on his home track of Churchill Downs, his only win of the year. The horse did recently have one of those workouts that had Wilkes say, “He came off the track with authority. He walked off the track like he owned the place. That’s what I liked about it – he’s got that air of confidence about him.”

Still, that’s all the more reason to put him on a van to run for more money and to position him to win the Holy Grail of Eclipse Awards. Trainers don’t often get a chance to train a Horse of the Year candidate. For his troves of Grade 1s and trainer titles across the land, Todd Pletcher has never had a horse win Horse of the Year. So when you have your shot, you take your shot.

Running at Churchill Downs may be nice for a little cache for its “Downs After Dark” (which just sounds like an awful sequel to Johnny Knoxville’s “The Ringer”) program. So what? Fort Larned will run against six out-classed horses who likely won’t be running in anything short of the Clark Handicap by the end of the year. Just hand the older division to Game On Dude now.

Wilkes appears to be making the travel plans easier on Fort Larned. To run at Belmont and then Santa Anita requires only two extra van rides: One to Belmont, one back from Belmont, then fly out to California. Keeping him home only requires the flight, but it’s pennywise and pound foolish. By keeping him home and easing his travel plans he will lose Horse of the Year no matter what happens in SoCal.

A year ago he prepped in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished third. He then went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The formula worked a year ago, though he did get beat out by a grass miler for Horse of the Year. Such is life.

This year has been fluky for this son of E. Dubai. He won his first race at Gulfstream, though he lost his rider. Of course, it was a DNF, but it was proof for jockey haters that they are unnecessary to win a horse race. His next race was the Oaklawn Handicap where he finished fifth. Then he won the Stephen Foster, then finished fifth in the Whitney. This pattern sets up nicely for a win in his next start. That will happen, yes, but it will be in the wrong spot at the right time.

If he runs in the Gold Cup he’d be up against Cross Traffic on the front end and that could lead to a taxing pre-Breedres’ Cup race. Fort Larned would win that battle, but he may lose the war. Cross Traffic will hit a red light at the eighth pole.

The year 2013 didn’t start well for Fort Larned but two 10-furlong Grade 1-wins at the end of the year may have been enough to sway the voters in his direction. Memory is short. Instead, he’s running for less money and less honor. This is like prepping for the Derby at Ellis Park. What the heck is going on here?

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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