Reminiscent of last November's triumph in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (Grade I), Fort Larned made all of the running and posted a dominant 6 ¼-length, gate-to-wire win over Golden Ticket in Saturday's 32nd running of the $536,300 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi (GI) before 23,509 “Downs After Dark” night racing fans at Churchill Downs.
Fort Larned, the co-starting high weight at 121 pounds, zipped 1 1/8 miles on a fast main track in 1:47.45 – the second fastest Stephen Foster, just .17 seconds off 1999 winner Victory Gallop's stakes and track record of 1:47.28.
Brian Hernandez Jr. rode the winner for trainer Ian Wilkes and owner/breeder Janis Whitham of Keoti, Kan.
“That was amazing,” Hernandez said. “He's a true champion and he showed it again tonight.”
The $329,181 winner's share of the purse jumped Fort Larned's earnings to $4,031,417, which ranks 65th all-time in North America. Additionally, the Foster was the year's first Breeders' Cup “Win and You're In” Classic Division Challenge Race, and Fort Larned is entitled to an automatic entry into the Nov. 2 Classic at Santa Anita with $100,000 in pre-entry and entry fees waived and a $10,000 travel stipend.
Fort Larned took control from the start and dictated terms from the inside, cutting quarter-mile fractions of :23.69, :46.96, 1:10.48 and 1:34.53. Take Charge Indy, the six-length Alysheba (GII) winner on Kentucky Oaks Day, attempted to keep up but would falter to finish last in the field of six older horses as the 9-5 favorite.
Fort Larned remained unchallenged throughout and turned for home with a 2 ½-length lead only to draw off in the stretch to prevail by 6 ¼ lengths – the second-largest Foster winning-margin to Street Cry-IRE's 6 ½-length win over Dollar Bill in 2002.
“We were going down the backside and were cooking right along and the poles were going by pretty fast, but he was always doing it well within himself so I wasn't really worried about it,” Hernandez said. “When we turned for home, I pulled the stick through and he switched leads like the Fort Larned of old.”
Golden Ticket, last year's dead-heat winner of the Travers (GI), trailed the winner by 10 lengths at the half-mile pole but moved up on the turn to prove second best.
Fort Larned, a son of E Dubai out of the Broad Brush mare Arlucea, paid $8.60, $5.20 and $3.60 as the fourth betting choice. Golden Ticket, at odds of 11.80-1 under 117 pounds and Joel Rosario, paid $7.20 and $3.40. Defending race champ Ron the Greek, ridden by Jose Lezcano and tacking 120 pounds, was another four lengths back in third and paid $3.20. Successful Dan, Pool Play and Take Charge Indy completed the order of finish.
Favorites have faltered in the Foster for seven of the last eight years.
The Foster was redemption for Fort Larned after two frustrating starts this season. He made his 5-year-old debut in March's Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) but lost Hernandez after stumbling at the start and proceeded to race around the track without the guidance of a rider and finished well in front of the field. Next time out, he finished a lackluster fifth as the odds-on favorite in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII).
“He ran unbelievable,” Wilkes said. “It was gratifying to get the horse back and to prove that he's as good as I thought he was and show he wasn't a one-year wonder.”
Earlier on the program, Whitham, Wilkes and Hernandez also teamed to win a one-mile maiden special weight with Fort Larned's half-brother Lent, a 3-year-old son of Pulpit.
STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP PRESENTED BY ABU DHABI QUOTES
Ian Wilkes, trainer of Fort Larned, winner: “He ran unbelievable. It was gratifying to get the horse back and to prove that he's as good as I thought he was and show he wasn't a one-year wonder.”
Q. Was the plan to go to the lead? “Just about, but it was up to Brian. The main thing was to kick him out of the gate and then read the race. If Take Charge Indy desperately wanted to go, then we could have sat behind him and go from there.”
Q. What does it mean to come back and win the Stephen Foster after his disappointing performance in this race last year? “It means a lot. I took the blame because I didn't do a good job with this horse for the Stephen Foster last time. I had too pretty of a horse. I had a show horse, not a racehorse last year. I knew I was coming in ready this year. The Stephen Foster was one we wanted to win.”
Q. What's next? “We'll run him in the Whitney and try to have him defend his crown.”
Q. This was a “Win and You're In” for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Is that the goal at the end of the year? “It's always been the end of the year goal to get back to the Breeders' Cup. We'll go the Whitney and then take it one race at a time.”
Brian Hernandez Jr., rider on Fort Larned, winner: “That was amazing. We were going down the backside and were cooking right along and the poles were going by pretty fast, but he was always doing it well within himself so I wasn't really worried about it. When we turned for home, I pulled the stick through and he switched leads like the Fort Larned of old.”
Q. What's it like to have him run like that after his disappointing start to the year? “It's great because it puts the confidence of the fans back in him and shows his Breeders' Cup Classic win wasn't a fluke. He's a true champion and he showed it again tonight.”
Phil Bauer, assistant to Kenny McPeek, trainer of Golden Ticket, runner-up: “No shame in running second to a Breeders' Cup Classic winner. He's about half the size of the rest of the field, but he gives you everything he's got every time.”
Joel Rosario, rider on Golden Ticket, runner-up: “He tried hard. Probably we were second best. That horse (Fort Larned) ran a really good race today. You have to give him a lot of credit. He's a good horse.”
Bill Mott, trainer of Ron the Greek, third: “The winner is a good horse. He's the Breeders' Cup Classic winner, so he's just a winner. He got a little break in the weights today, but I don't think another four pounds was going to matter to him today.”
Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Successful Dan, fourth: That horse (Fort Larned) just got loose on the front end and kept going and Julien said our horse was having trouble getting a hold of it. He was bobbling the whole way. I don't know that he handled the track that well tonight.”
Julien Leparoux, rider on Successful Dan, fourth: “(Fort Larned) ran a huge race. My horse, we got a good spot. He was comfortable during the race, but when it was time to get going, he started bobbling. I don't know if we can use that as an excuse or not. He just got beat, really. He's usually in the trifecta. The winner ran a big race.”
Norman Casse, assistant to Mark Casse, trainer of Pool Play, fifth: “It just seems like he's not interested in running. He gets himself too far back. But this is was a quality field and this is a good horse that just won.”
Miguel Mena, rider on Pool Play, fifth: “He ran his race, but we just couldn't catch them. I don't want to make excuses. He just couldn't get there.
Pat Byrne, trainer of Take Charge Indy, sixth: “We were never running in hand and we were never going to beat the winner, that's for sure. I thought he had enough time between races, but he ran like he kind of bounced a little bit. Rosie just said she never really had any horse.”
Rosie Napravnik, rider on Take Charge Indy, sixth: “It just wasn't my horse's day. The pace was a little fast, but I was sitting three lengths off the leader and didn't have much in hand. He's usually chugging along in the bridle, but he wasn't himself today.”
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