Classic hero Fort Larned ready to roll in Gulfstream Park Handicap

There are some horses for whom hype is a constant companion, whether it is due to their on-track performance, charisma or fortuitous combination of the two.

Despite having more than proven form and a cast of affable connections surrounding him, showy hoopla has often eluded Fort Larned even as he has vanquished some much chatted-about rivals.

What the 5-year-old horse does currently have is substantive bragging rights over most of the country’s major handicap horses. Maintaining that  is what his low-key trainer Ian Wilkes is rightfully concerned with – knowing if that stays the course, the effusive build-up and respect will inevitably follow.

While ballyhooed 3-year-olds Verrazano and Flashback take center stage this weekend in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Grade II San Felipe Stakes, respectively,  Saturday will also mark the 2013 debut for reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned as he faces five others in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap.

When Janis Whitham’s homebred wired the field to take the Classic by half a length over Mucho Macho Man last November 3, it was considered an upset over the likes of heavily favored Game On Dude and multiple Grade I winner Ron the Greek. Hindsight showed Fort Larned wasn’t really sneaking up on anyone, however, as the son of E Dubai had been steadily moving forward since opening his 2012 campaign.

Aside from an eighth-place run in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap last June, the only time Fort Larned was off the board in his nine-race campaign last season was when he was fourth in his seasonal bow at Tampa Bay Downs last February. Included in his five wins in 2012 were four graded stakes triumphs including a victory in the Grade I Whitney Handicap to go along with his sublime Classic performance.

“Even before the Stephen Foster I thought his form was good,” Wilkes said Wednesday, prior to learning Fort Larned drew post No. 3 in the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap. “He won the Skip Away Stakes (at Gulfstream in March) and broke the track record and then he ran a huge race to run second to Successful Dan in the Alysheba (at Churchill Downs). His only bad race was the Foster, but you allow a horse to have a bad race.”

Nicknamed “Big Ugly” within his own barn, Fort Larned has been flattered by those he has bested as he prepped for his return to the races. Game On Dude – who had never lost at Santa Anita Park until his seventh-place finish behind Fort Larned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – has reestablished himself atop the handicap division with three straight wins, none more impressive than his 7 3/4-length romp in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap last weekend.

“A lot of people kind of explain why (Game On Dude) ran bad in the Breeders’ Cup but I’ll just leave it at that,” Wilkes said. “We beat him and we’ll be looking forward to the challenge later.”

Prior to running fourth in the Big ‘Cap, Ron the Greek  – who finished behind Fort Larned three times in 2012 – rolled to an 11 1/4 length victory in the Sunshine Millions Classic defeating Gulfstream Park Handicap entrants Fort Loudon and Decaf Again. Fort Larned hasn’t tried Saturday’s  distance since winning over eight furlongs on the turf at Kentucky Downs in September 2011, but his ability to either dictate the pace or relax off leaders gave Wilkes the luxury of picking a starting point for 2013 without being rushed into a particular spot.

“I thought it was a logical spot for him,” Wilkes said. “I didn’t want a 1 1/8-miles race first time back, a taxing race like the Donn Handicap. I was just looking for race to get started and a mile, one turn suits my training style.

“He’s been off for a while and…is he 110 percent right now? No. But he’s ready to run and he’s ready to get started. I’m very happy with him right now.”

A return to the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita this November is the obvious goal for Fort Larned, but Wilkes says they have yet to map out a race schedule beyond Saturday’s return. What Wilkes is fairly sure of is the fact his stable stalwart still has room for improvement. If he is right, it will be hard for the racing community not to fully take notice.

“I think he’s matured some more,” Wilkes said. “I really feel he’s bigger and stronger right now. If you don’t have the horse, you can’t do anything. The good horses take care of us. The main thing we have to do is just not mess them up.”