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by Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – For almost two years, trainer Ian Wilkes searched for the key to bringing out the ability in Fort Larned that he felt certain was there.

He ran him on dirt. He tried turf. And then, at the end of the youngster’s 3-year-old season he found the missing element – blinkers.

“We had to try something different with him,” Wilkes said. “We just couldn’t quite get where we wanted to be with him.”

He will take a dramatically improved 4-year-old into Saturday’s Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1) at Saratoga Race Course. The slow-to-develop son of E Dubai boasts impressive victories this season in the Skip Away Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park in March and in his most recent start, the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3), where he upset Successful Dan.

The trainer credits those victories to nothing more complex than the addition of blinkers. 

“I think it gives him some confidence,” he said. “He has his own world. He’s focused on what he is doing.”

Fort Larned, bred and owned by Janis Whitham, raced just once as a 2-year-old due to sore shins, among other setbacks. Wilkes often felt like a mad scientist last year, searching for answers before finally hitting on the right one.

Aside from the equipment change, this was a big colt who simply needed time to develop, physically and mentally.

“He’s a horse who’s really figuring it out,” Wilkes said. “He’s getting good right now. It’s a good time of year for it.”

The Whitney should provide an excellent measure of where Fort Larned stands among the nation’s elite older horses. The race has produced the champion older male four times in the last 10 years: Left Bank (2002), Horse of the Year Invasor (2006), Lawyer Ron (2007) and hard-knocking Blame (2010).

Fort Larned is listed as the 7-to-2 second choice in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney, which represents his sternest test by far. The field is headed by 3-to-1 favorite Ron the Greek, who has been first or second in all seven starts since entering Bill Mott’s barn toward the end of last season. His triumphs this year include the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) in March and the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill  Downs in mid-June in his most recent effort.

Mott, who can count the Whitney as one of the few holes in his lengthy resume, also will be represented in the field of nine by Flat Out. He finished second in the Monmouth Cup Stakes (G2) on July 7 in his lone start since being transferred to his new trainer.

This will represent the second Grade 1 test for Fort Larned, who owns 6 victories in 16 starts with a pair of runner-up finishes for earnings of $431,236. He finished eighth in the Stephen Foster in his first try at the Grade 1 level.

“The water is going to get deeper, but he’s a very good horse,” Wilkes said. “I believe in him. I think he’s good enough to win a Grade 1.”

The trainer owns two Grade 1 wins, with Capt. Candyman Can in the 2009 King’s Bishop Stakes and with Warrior’s Reward in the 2010 Carter Handicap. This is the time of year when dreams begin to surround the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Yet Wilkes is putting those aside for now.

“If he’s good enough, we’ll get there,” he said.

 

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