With statements of all sorts being made in the 10 Grade I races held on both coasts Saturday, Janis Whitham's homebred Fort Larned did exactly what was expected of him in what was viewed as a softer spot, winging away on the front end en route to a 11/2-length triumph over Windswept in the $191,275 Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs.
Just as he did during the run-up to the race, Ian Wilkes made it clear after Saturday's Homecoming Classic that he viewed the 11⁄8-mile test as a means to an end for Fort Larned and not an end-all determinant of the 5-year-old's form.
The defending Breeders' Cup Classic winner reinforced his trainer's belief that his best form could show up a month from now.
After running a dull fifth in the Grade I Whitney Handicap on Aug. 3 and then missing the Grade I Woodward on Aug. 31 with a slight hind-end ailment, Fort Larned needed to deliver an effort in his final prep that would convince his connections a Breeders' Cup title defense at Santa Anita in November was still in his wheelhouse.
While not quite the cakewalk his 1-to-5 odds suggested, Fort Larned nonetheless looked the way he does when he's at his best, aggressively getting away under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. and opening up a 41/2-length advantage in the stretch before letting Windswept come to him a handful of strides before the wire.
"I think this race is going to help us a lot. I needed this race today to get to where I want to be," Wilkes said. "Coming in, I kept saying I wasn't 100 percent (cranked up on him) but ... I just had to use this race to the get to the Breeders' Cup. If I didn't get this race tonight, I couldn't get to the Breeders' Cup, and I wanted this race to move forward off of."
Fort Larned has shown in the past he could win while rating off early fractions. Still, the bay horse has been most successful when he shakes free early, as he did when he won the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill in June.
Fort Larned indulged his front-running ways Saturday with Hernandez barely moving on his mount as they maintained a 21/2- and 31/2-length advantage through an opening quarter in :23.50 and a half in :47.15.
"It was the performance we needed out of him," Hernandez said. "He left there and got on his game face and did his job. He got a little tired but I made him gallop out good so we could have him 110 percent for the big one."
Clear by nearly 6 lengths at the head of the lane, Fort Larned appeared set to duplicate his 61/4-length clinic in the Stephen Foster to the letter. The improving Windswept came running late under Corey Lanerie to make the final margin less gaudy, but Hernandez said the result was never seriously in question.
"I think he was kind of playing around a bit, four jumps before the wire he threw his ears back on us and was just kind of waiting on horses today," he said.
Final time for the 11⁄8-mile race over a fast track was 1:48.58. Windswept, who was stepping into stakes company for the first time since missing all of 2012 with a soft tissue injury, was 21/4 lengths clear of third-place finisher Worldly.
"If we'd just been a little closer or somebody would have pressed (Fort Larned) I think we could have won," said Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Windswept. "When Corey asked him, he was just flying. I'll be back for the (Grade I) Clark (Handicap on Nov. 29)."
With an abundance of early speed slated to show up for the Breeders' Cup Classic, Fort Larned's handiness will likely be put to the test if he is to repeat his victory of a year ago.
"I still believe he can sit, I'm not worried about that, but he does like to run along free," Wilkes said. "He is a different horse in that case."
■ WinStar Farm's General Election rallied late to edge Redwood Kitten by a neck in the final strides to win the Grade III Jefferson Cup on the turf at Churchill on Saturday.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.