Fort Larned, last year’s winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, tuned up for a run in Saturday’s first running of the $175,000 Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs with a five-furlong work on Monday at the Louisville track.
The five-year-old son of E Dubai cruised the distance under the track’s lights in 1:02 2/5 under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Fort Larned worked at 6:30 a.m. (EDT) for trainer Ian Wilkes and Churchill Downs clockers recorded the work’s internal fractions as :13, :25 4/5, and :38 1/5. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:15.20 and seven-eighths in 1:29.
“I wasn’t looking for anything sharp — I didn’t want to break any records,” Wilkes said. “It’s the way he did it. He relaxed early and (Hernandez) let him punch. The horse is ready. He finished up good, got home good and galloped out strong. We’re ready to go.”
The 1 1/8-mile Homecoming Classic is scheduled as the seventh of 11 races in Churchill Downs’ Saturday, June 28 Downs After Dark program billed as “Homecoming Dance: A Night to Remember.”
Fort Larned, whose lone win in four races since last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph at Santa Anita was a sizzling 6 1/2-length victory in Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster Handicap on June 15, will face six rivals in the Homecoming Classic. The race will be his final prep for a planned defense of his Breeders’ Cup Classic win on November 2 at Santa Anita.
The race will be Fort Larned’s first since a disappointing fifth-place finish in the $750,000 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Fort Larned skipped a planned start in the Woodward at Saratoga in late August because of a muscle strain. Wilkes elected to keep Fort Larned home at Churchill Downs for a final Breeders’ Cup prep in the Homecoming Classic rather than travel to Belmont Park for Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.
“I don’t have to ship,” Wilkes said. “The ultimate goal is to get to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Fort Larned will be a heavy favorite to win the Homecoming Classic, but the first-year race attracted six rivals. Five of the six are stakes winners and two of those — Pool Play and Golden Ticket — have won Grade 1 stakes. Pool Play won the 2011 Stephen Foster Handicap and Golden Ticket finished in a dead-heat with Alpha for the win in the 2012 Travers at Saratoga.
“It’s a solid race,” Wilkes said. “There’s some hard-knocking horses in there.”
Wilkes is hoping for a test in the Homecoming Classic to prepare Fort Larned for the difficult task of his Breeders’ Cup defense.
“Someone said the other day that this is probably the strongest Breeders’ Cup (Classic) that we’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “That’s the way it’s shaping up. You want everyone to stay sound and get there in good form. It’s going to be a tremendous race.”
Fort Larned will take a career record of 9-2-1 in 23 races and earnings of $4,053,917 into Saturday’s race. Wilkes describes his 2013 campaign as a “rollercoaster ride.” It started in March when Fort Larned stumbled at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap and unseated Hernandez, continued with a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Oaklawn Handicap, his easy victory in the Stephen Foster and his disappointing fifth-place effort in the Whitney.
Although little has gone according to plan, Wilkes likes where Fort Larned is as the calendar has turned to fall. And he’s anxious to see him run on Saturday.
“I’m happy,” Wilkes said. “The horse is healthy. He’s very bright, he’s very alert.”
Also working for the Homecoming Classic on Monday was Prayer for Relief, a five-time stakes winner with earnings of more than $1.5 million, who breezed a half-mile for trainer Steve Asmussen in :50 1/5.
Prayer for Relief has yet to finish worse than second in four starts this year. He was runner-up in his first two races of the year in the Lone Star Park Handicap and the Texas Mile, then notched back-to-back victories in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap and the Governor’s Cup at Remington Park.