STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP | PURSE: $500,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/8 MILE
Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned put his early season problems behind him June 15, as he scored a front-running victory in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap Presented by Abu Dhabi at Churchill Downs.
Under the lights, Fort Larned thrived in primetime as he enjoyed a clear advantage at every call and carried that momentum to the wire, completing the 1 1/8-mile handicap race in 1:47.45, less than a fifth of a second off Victory Gallop's 14-year-old track and stakes record of 1:47.28.
His 6 ¼-length margin of victory was the second-largest in Stephen Foster history, behind only Street Cry's 6 ½-length 2002 Foster win.
"He ran unbelievable," said winning trainer Ian Wilkes. "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."
After a difficult start to the season, Fort Larned and regular rider Brian Hernandez returned to the front-running style they used to win last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. In his 2013 debut March 9 in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Fort Larned stumbled at the start, unseating Hernandez. A month later, Fort Larned failed to get the early lead and settled for fifth after a stalking trip in the Oaklawn Handicap.
But under the Churchill Downs lights around 9:40 p.m., Janis Whitham's homebred son of E Dubai cruised through a half-mile in :46.96 and six furlongs in 1:10.48. He put away a mild charge from 9-5 favorite Take Charge Indy turning for home and was never threatened by runner-up Golden Ticket, dead-heat winner of last year's Travers Stakes. Last year's Stephen Foster winner, Ron the Greek, rallied for third.
"I talked with [Wilkes] today and last night and he thought the best plan was to take it to them," Hernandez said. "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."
Fort Larned returned $8.60 to win, $5.20 to place, and $3.60 to show. Golden Ticket brought $7.20 and $3.40, while Ron the Greek paid $3.20 to show. Rounding out the field were Successful Dan, who tracked in third early, 2011 Stephen Foster winner Pool Play, and recent Alysheba Stakes winner Take Charge Indy, who faded after racing in second throughout.
Fort Larned secured the third Grade 1 victory of his career -- he also won last year's Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga -- and improved his career record to 9-2-1 from 22 career starts and earnings of $4,031,417. The Stephen Foster is a Breeders' Cup Classic Win and You're In race.
Kentucky-bred Fort Larned is the lone stakes winner out of the Broad Brush mare Arlucea, who has produced six starters, all winners, including two stakes-placed runners.