With his swagger restored after two bobbles, Fort Larned is now free to pursue milestones, starting with Saturday's attempt to become just the second horse since 1928 to win consecutive editions of the Grade I Whitney Invitational Handicap.
While chasing history has become the game plan for the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic winner, chasing Fort Larned has become a bit of a habit for some of his challengers in Saturday's $750,000, 11⁄8-mile test at Saratoga Race Course.
His 61/4-length triumph in the Grade I Stephen Foster on June 15 righted the ship for Fort Larned following two unfortunate starts to begin 2013.
Fellow Whitney contenders Ron the Greek, Mucho Macho Man and Successful Dan can get their own respective campaigns back on track with a victory over the 5-year-old son of E Dubai.
Twelve months ago, Ron the Greek was in the shoes Fort Larned currently occupies — a staunch Whitney favorite coming off his own Foster triumph. Since his second-place finish in last year's Whitney, Ron the Greek's only win in his last seven starts has come in the Sunshine Millions Classic this January, and he was beaten more than 10 lengths while running third to Fort Larned in this year's Stephen Foster.
"I don't think he runs his best race every time. It seems like about every third shot he jumps up and runs a good one," trainer Bill Mott said of Ron the Greek. "Last year, actually, we felt after it was all said and done the Whitney was probably his biggest race of the year, even though we were second. We got beat by a horse that was much better than us on the day. But we were pleased with his race and we hope he runs as good this year."
One could argue Successful Dan was training as brilliantly as any Whitney contender heading into last year's race. The older half-brother to reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan was betrayed by his own body, though, when an old ligament strain flared up that caused him to miss that race and the rest of 2012.
Still seeking his first career Grade I victory, 7-year-old Successful Dan started his 2013 with a powerful win in the Grade III Ben Ali only to run fourth in the Foster, his second loss to Fort Larned in three career meetings.
"He has a lot of talent and when he's right, he's really good," trainer Charlie LoPresti said of Successful Dan, who will break from post No. 1 in the eight-horse field. "We've had some problems with him, but I think we've got him good right now. I'm a little worried about this 1 post. I would have liked to have been mid to outside, but that's the way it is."
With three wins in six starts in 2012 and a runner-up finish to Fort Larned in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Mucho Macho Man was expected to challenge his rival for handicap division supremacy this year.
After being pulled up in the Sunshine Millions Classic, the 5-year-old son of Macho Uno was sent to Fair Hill in Maryland to regroup before starting back with a third-place run in the Criminal Type Stakes at Belmont on June 14.
"When you're in this business, you're due for a little downside," said owner Dean Reeves. "We had a tough start at 2013, but we have a lot of confidence that the rest of this year will be great. We think he's gotten back into position where he was last year."
■ Joining Fort Larned as a defending race winner this weekend is Jay Em Ess Stable's Include Me Out, who makes her second start of 2013 in Saturday's Grade I Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar.
The Clement L. Hirsch was one of two Grade I races and four graded stakes Include Me Out won during her 4-year-old campaign in 2012. Freshened following a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, the daughter of Include set herself up for Saturday's 11⁄16-mile race with a victory in the Desert Stormer Handicap at Hollywood Park in June.
"I would say that she's a touch vulnerable in this race, just because of her last racing but, for me, she's a stronger filly than last year," trainer Ron Ellis said.
Groupie Doll to Gardenia
Groupie Doll, the champion female sprinter of 2012, will make her season debut slightly ahead of schedule in the Grade III Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park on Aug. 10, trainer and co-owner Buff Bradley said Friday.
Unraced since running second by a nose against males in the Grade I Cigar Mile last November, Groupie Doll had been targeted for the Presque Isle Masters on Sept. 6 for her return. After she worked 4 furlongs in 48 seconds at Churchill Downs on Friday — her fourth bullet move since returning to the worktab in late June — Bradley solidified plans to use the Gardenia as a prep for Presque Isle.
"She breezed this morning, did well and we decided to do it," said Bradley, who co-owns and bred Groupie Doll with his father, Fred. "It fits in her schedule well and this way I don't have to drill on her. It will be good to take her to Ellis Park, and my dad can get down there to see her."
Groupie Doll won the 2011 Gardenia as a 3-year-old.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.