The genesis for Churchill Downs hosting its inaugural 12-day September meeting was to provide local horsemen with viable options. Thus, when the track's newly created $175,000 Homecoming Classic Stakes managed to attract the reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner away from the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup, it was a clear stamp of validation.
From a logistical standpoint, Churchill-based trainer Ian Wilkes couldn't ask for a better spot to prep Fort Larned for his attempted Breeders' Cup title defense at Santa Anita Park in November.
With Saturday's 11⁄8-mile Homecoming Classic a seemingly easier test than what would loom at Belmont Park, though, the 5-year-old horse faces even heavier scrutiny.
The last time Fort Larned ran out of his home stall, questions that arose after two unfortunate outings fell by the wayside during his 61/4-length, gate-to-wire win in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill in June.
However, voices of doubt regained steam when the bay son of E Dubai finished fifth in the Grade I Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 3 after being outmaneuvered early by race winner Cross Traffic.
Had Fort Larned shipped East again to face Cross Traffic, multiple Grade I-winner Flat Out and top 3-year-olds Orb and Palace Malice in Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup — a race he ran third in last year — a strong effort, if not a win, could have been viewed as a sign he was ripe to peak as he did in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Given the class edge he has over his five opponents in the Homecoming Classic, though, anything less than a win probably will be dubbed cause for concern regarding his prospects in the Breeders' Cup.
"The main thing is, I have to get a good race, the right kind of race into him to move forward to the Breeders' Cup because that's the ultimate goal," Wilkes said of his 3-5 morning line favorite. "If you get too worried in this business about winning and losing when you're training horses, you're going to go crazy. All the analysts think if you get beat, you're off, you're no good. But you can't get too caught up in that.
"He's got that little air of confidence about him. His works have been good and I'm very pleased with that."
Fort Larned was scheduled to run in the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga on Aug. 31 but was scratched days out when it was discovered he was slightly off in his hind end. Such ill-timed luck has haunted the Eclipse Award finalist this year, as he infamously opened his 2013 campaign by stumbling at the start of the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, unseating jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
"It's really only one bad race I put it down to," Wilkes said. "The first race he stumbled and the second race (fifth in the Oaklawn Handicap) I ran back too quick on him. The Whitney was really the only race I thought he had a bad race this year, otherwise he's stayed consistent."
Wilkes dismisses the notion Fort Larned needs to be on the lead to run his best. Still, that his losses this year have come when others have set the pace is something challengers have noted.
Fort Larned lost one of his toughest challengers for the Homecoming Classic when trainer Ken McPeek opted to ship Grade I winner Golden Ticket to Santa Anita for a start in the Grade I Awesome Again. One who could still sneak up, however, is the Charlie LoPresti-trained Windswept, a 91/2-length winner going 11⁄8 miles at Saratoga on Aug. 8.
Windswept broke his maiden over the Churchill main track in July 2011 but missed all of 2012 with a soft tissue injury. Three starts into his return this season, the 5-year-old Arch gelding rallied from well back to win a 1-mile allowance race at Churchill in June and was even more effective stalking in his last romp.
"I think he's up to it, I think he's going to run big," LoPresti said. "If Fort Larned doesn't bring his 'A' game, I think it's wide open. That's what everyone is banking on. I think the key to Fort Larned is ... it seems like whenever anyone takes it to him early, he's not the same horse.
"Now if we're going to be the ones to press him, I don't know. But I think Windswept is an improving horse and more than anything we'll get a line on what we have."
Homecoming Classic Stakes
When: 9:05 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs
Distance: 11⁄8 miles
For: 3-year-olds and up
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.