Janis Whitham's 5-year-old Kentucky homebred Fort Larned won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) last out at Santa Anita on Nov. 3 and Jacks or Better Farm's 4-year-old Florida homebred Fort Loudon is in top form after a hard-fought half-length victory in the $150,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship Sprint (G3) on February 9.
The two ‘Forts' will clash for the first time and are the likely favorites in a field of six older horses drawn for Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) at one mile. Regular rider Brian Hernandez, Jr., will fly in from New Orleans for the mount on Fort Larned for trainer Ian Wilkes and jockey Jose Lezcano gets a return call on Fort Loudon for trainer Nick Zito.
Fort Larned shoulders topweight of 124 pounds in the 71st edition of the race, conceding six to Fort Loudon at 118 pounds and seven-to-12 pounds to his other rivals.
Fort Larned will be the 3-5 morning line favorite. Fort Loudon is 5-1, Discreet Dancer 3-1 and Swagger Jack 6-1.
Fort Larned gets another campaign underway in his first start since the wire-to-wire half-length victory over 2012 Gulfstream Park Handicap winner Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders Cup. Fort Larned will be making his first start in a one-turn race since breaking his maiden going a mile here on Jan. 11, 2011 in the second start of his career following a fourth-place debut at Churchill Downs in November of 2010.
“It's a good stepping stone to bring my horse back,” said Wilkes of the timing and distance of Saturday's race. “We've freshened him quite a bit since the Breeders' Cup. We've been in a nice work pattern. For me and my style, I thought it was the perfect race back for him.”
An imposing bay son of E Dubai, Fort Larned didn't make his stakes debut until winning the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in early March last year before winning the $100,000 Skip Away Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream going 1 3/16 miles on Florida Derby Day, March 31.
Fort Larned went on to post major scores in the Cornhusker Handicap (G3) at Prairie Meadows and Whitney Handicap (G1) at Saratoga before finishing third in his final tune-up for the Breeders' Cup behind Flat Out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont Park in late September.
Fort Loudon comes into Saturday's race after his sharp victory in the seven-furlong Gulfstream Sprint Championship in his third start of the meet. The son of Awesome of Course was turned back in distance for that race from a well-beaten third-place run in the $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic won by Ron the Greek on Jan. 19.
Fort Loudon was the star 2-year-old developed at Calder in 2011 winning the In Reality Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes when trained by Stanley Gold. He was tested over a distance three more times in stakes at the Gulfstream meet early last year, including a sixth-place effort behind Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby (G1).
Gold turned Fort Loudon back to sprints at Calder last spring and summer and he won three straight stakes, including the Carry Back (G3) before he was sent to Zito in New York. He ran a very big race to finish second in the King's Bishop Stakes (G1) at Saratoga in late August and later finished second in the Ack Ack Handicap (G3) at Churchill Downs in early November before shipping into Palm Meadows for the winter.
“He's a good horse. He runs his race every time,” said Zito. “The one-turn mile should be perfect for him. We'll keep him in one one-turn races from now on. Fort Larned is a really good horse, but Fort Loudon is doing great and I think he'll be tough.”
Likely third-choice in Saturday's race will be Silverton Hill LLC's 5-year-old Swagger Jack and jockey Luis Saez to ride for trainer Marty Wolfson. The son of Smart Strike has hit his best stride here this meet, winning a pair of one-mile allowance races in December and January and finishing a game second to Fort Loudon in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship.
“I've been planning on running him in this race for some time,” said Wolfson. “I think the one post got him beat in his last race. It took him a while to get out and in the clear to make his run. He's doing really well and likes the track. I think the key to his success was taking the blinkers off,” following a fourth-place finish in an allowance race at Calder in November.
Trainer Todd Pletcher had eight horses from his powerful stable nominated for Saturday's race and has tabbed E. Paul Robsham's 4-year-old Discreet Dancer to start Saturday with leading Gulfstream jockey Javier Castellano aboard as he makes just the fifth start of his sometimes brilliant career.
A Florida homebred by Discreet Cat, Discreet Dancer has made all four of his career starts at Gulfstream with three victories and a third. He won his debut in early December of 2011 by 9 ¾ lengths in track record time for 5 ½ furlongs. He followed with a 5 ½ lengths allowance score in early January last year and the third-place finish came when attempting two turns behind Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2).
Discreet Dancer went to the sidelines and didn't run again until Feb. 6 when he won a hard-fought neck victory in a six-furlong allowance race. He has been the odds-on favorite in all four of his races, including the Fountain of Youth.
Completing the field are Our Sugar Bear Stable's Gourmet Dinner, Sebastian Madrid; and Rose Family Stable's Decaf Again, John Gonzalez
Gourmet Dinner is a winner of more than $1 million with $600,000 of that total coming from his victory in the $1 million Delta Jackpot (G3) in Louisiana late in his 2-year-old season. The 5-year-old son of Trippi is trained by Bruce Brown and with his lone victory in eight starts last year coming in the $100,000 Majestic Light Stakes at Monmouth Park. He finished seventh in the Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 23 in his only start this season.
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