ARCADIA, Cali. — Unbeknownst to the rest of the contenders for Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, trainer Ian Wilkes had a pact he needed to keep. And anyone who knows the former Carl Nafzger protégé knows he is man of integrity.
A week earlier, Wilkes and his fellow Kentucky-based trainers Buff Bradley and Charlie Lopresti decided they needed to bring a hat trick to the California area — hockey season or not. And when Bradley saddled Groupie Doll to victory in the Filly and Mare Sprint and Lopresti's Wise Dan took the Mile, Wilkes didn't want to be the guy who let his brethren down.
"There was some pressure after they won," Wilkes joked.
Though the final stages of his 11/4-mile tour of Santa Anita Park's main track had Wilkes more than a little anxious, his trainee Fort Larned ensured he too would succeed in bringing a host of bragging rights back to the Bluegrass.
Never miss a local story.
Whatever radar Fort Larned was under heading into the Classic was officially blown up before a crowd of 55,123 at Santa Anita Park. With jockey and birthday boy Brian Hernandez Jr. in the irons, Fort Larned repeatedly turned back the challenges of runner-up Mucho Macho Man in the stretch to post a half length, gate-to-wire triumph in the headline event of the two-day, 15-race Breeders' Cup lineup.
This year's Classic might have lacked a definitive star, but Fort Larned still found himself taking a backseat to the likes of race favorite Game On Dude and trainer Bill Mott's three-horse arsenal of Flat Out, Ron the Greek and To Honor and Serve in the respect department.
Janis Whitham's homebred son of E Dubai certainly didn't look so unassuming as he broke sharply from post No. 4, dictated the action in honest fashion, and then fought off Mucho Macho Man when that one looked ready to go on by in midstretch.
"Before Buff and Charlie and me came out here, we said we have to get a trifecta," Wilkes said. "When you've got a horse that keeps getting better and better every time you take him over there, it makes my job easier. Every time this horse went to the gate, he's always brought his 'A' game for us."
His 9-to-1 odds will deem him a mild upset winner. However, Fort Larned had already shown he belonged in the top handicap ranks with wins over Successful Dan in the Grade III Cornhusker in June and a handy triumph over Ron the Greek and Flat Out in the Grade I Whitney Handicap.
His third-place effort in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup prompted some to question his ability to get 10 furlongs come Classic day. Where the 4-year-old colt got the advantage that would carry him to victory, though, was in his opening few strides.
"That's where Brian (Hernandez) won the race," Wilkes said. "We broke sharp and Game On Dude broke bad."
Indeed, as Game On Dude found himself toiling midpack in the 12-horse field, Hernandez was keeping Fort Larned happy up front through quarters in :23.20 and :46.50 with Mucho Macho Man tracking him the whole way.
"The other horse (Fort Larned) snuck away from me and I wasn't able to keep up with him at that point," said Mike Smith, jockey of Mucho Macho Man, who was seeking a Ladies' Classic-Classic double after riding Royal Delta to victory Friday.
That two-horse procession never changed as Fort Larned finished in 2:00.11 with Flat Out 61/2 lengths back of Mucho Macho Man in third.
"It's the greatest birthday ever," said Hernandez, who turned 27 Saturday. "Going into a race like this we didn't have the bull's-eye on our back so we were able to let our horse do what he wanted."
While Fort Larned delivered his best career effort to earn his eighth win in 19 starts, Game On Dude's seventh-place run cost him a shot at the Horse of the Year crown — one that will likely go to Lopresti's Wise Dan.
"He wants to be right up there near the front and when he wasn't, that was it for him," said trainer Bob Baffert, who was shut out of the win column this Breeders' Cup. "It was a tough day for me but I've had tougher."
When you throw in the fact the Dale Romans-trained Little Mike stole his way to victory in the Turf, it's hard to imagine those who carry the Kentucky banner have a better day.