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Photo Courtesy of HorsePhotos.com

by Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing 

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Fort Larned asserted himself in the wide-open race for champion older male by winning Saturday’s Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1) by 1 1/4 lengths from runner-up Ron the Greek at Saratoga Race Course.

“I always thought I belonged with them,” trainer Ian Wilkes said. “You had to question yourself after the Stephen Foster [Handicap (G1)] because he got his head handed to him there.”

Fort Larned finished a distant eighth, beaten by 12 lengths, after a difficult trip in the Stephen Foster in mid-June at Churchill Downs for jockey Julien Leparoux. His connections were so eager to see him prove himself that they wheeled him back two weeks later in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3) at Prairie Meadows Racetrack.

With Brian Hernandez Jr. replacing Leparoux in the irons, the son of E Dubai controlled the Cornhusker Handicap from the outset in stunning Successful Dan.

The $750,000 Whitney, however, represented an enormous test for the 4-year-old bay colt and Hernandez. They could not have been more impressive.

“I don’t know if there is any more peaking in him, but he ran his best race today,” said Chandler Whitham. His mother, Janis, retained ownership in Fort Larned after breeding him in Kentucky. She could not attend the Whitney due to a family wedding in Olathe, Kan.

Wilkes felt pretty sure the pride of his stable was ready to move toward the head of the class when he zipped five furlongs in :58.69 on July 30, the second-fastest of 48 workouts at the distance that morning.

It was faster than desired, but Wilkes said, “I was happy with the horse. He worked unbelievably. He galloped out unbelievably. Just to see him come back, he never left an oat.”

Fort Larned bided his time in third behind a swift pace. He pounced on front-running Endorsement and Trickmeister so decisively that Hernandez began to celebrate prematurely before realizing he needed to get serious again to withstand hard-charging Ron the Greek.

“He’s kind of a horse where you need to stay out of his way,” Hernandez said. “After they put the blinkers on him [at the end of last season], he’s gotten a little more forward. If you just grab a long line on him and let him do his thing, he seems to run better.”

Wilkes is not sure of his next move.

“Let me have some champagne and enjoy it,” he all but pleaded.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott was not all that discouraged even though he remains without a Whitney triumph. Ron the Greek was forced seven wide, just outside stablemate Flat Out, into the stretch. Flat Out came in a head behind Ron the Greek in third.

“Both horses ran excellent. They were head and head coming down the lane, and both horses ran well and tried hard,” Mott said. “I think we got parked out a little bit on the turn with Ron the Greek. Last time, he had an inside trip and got up by a [head in the Stephen Foster]. Today, he went around and it cost him that length.”

Mott believes both of his horses are on a good path to reach the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park. He is targeting the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) on Sept. 29 at Belmont Park as Ron the Greek’s next start. He did not rule out training Flat Out up to the Classic.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup also is a possibility for Fort Larned, although no one could blame Wilkes for being more interested in sipping champagne after the greatest moment of his training career.

For an Equibase chart, click here.

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