LOUISVILLE — That the reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner doesn't rank as the morning-line favorite for Saturday's Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs is mostly a tribute to the quality of the six-horse lineup that features five Grade I winners and a track record-holder.
Conceding pre-race bias is the least of Fort Larned's problems this season, however. After two outings that can mildly be categorized as disastrous, the connections of last November's Breeders' Cup Classic winner are looking for some positives Saturday.
The only upside to Fort Larned's season debut in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 9 was neither he nor jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. suffered major injury. In what was his first start since his half-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Fort Larned stumbled out of the gate and face-planted onto the track, unseating Hernandez and leaving the 5-year-old horse to run solo ahead of the field.
Though Fort Larned appeared to emerge relatively unscathed, the full taxing nature of having his knees and nose go hard into the dirt likely showed up when he finished a dull fifth in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap on April 13. Having now had nine weeks to recover from those bobbles, trainer Ian Wilkes says Fort Larned should have no excuse not to run like the multiple Grade I winner he is in the 11⁄8-mile Stephen Foster.
"With everything, the stumble and the bad race at Oaklawn, we're looking to restart, to get the year going on a positive note and keep moving forward," said Wilkes, who trains Fort Larned for owner/breeder Janis Whitham. "(The stumble) probably took more out of him than what I was reading into it. In hindsight, I'm brilliant if I second-guess (going to Oaklawn). That's why I just regrouped a little bit here to get him ready for the Foster."
Regrouping is something Fort Larned was doing around this time last year after tiring badly to finish eighth in the 2012 Stephen Foster. Sensing that effort was too bad to be believed, Wilkes wheeled him back two weeks later to defeat Successful Dan — the 2-1 morning-line favorite for this year's Stephen Foster — in the Grade III Cornhusker Handicap.
That Cornhusker win kicked Fort Larned's form into overdrive as he went on to win the Grade I Whitney in August, run third in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and stamp his season with a gate-to-wire Breeders' Cup win.
"I thought (Wilkes) was crazy when he ran that horse back at Prairie Meadows," said Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Successful Dan. "Ian said his horse is doing really good, he's really confident now ... and that's a horse I respect a lot."
Being at his best on or near the lead is something Fort Larned has in common with a chunk of the top Foster contenders. Grade I winner Take Charge Indy romped to a 6-length win in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes at Churchill on May 4 after sitting just off an opening half in :48.28 but should be ready for more spirited fractions if Fort Larned gets away as expected.
"He's a very good horse," Pat Byrne, trainer of Take Charge Indy, said of Fort Larned. "He's had a couple of issues but ... if he shows up I think we're all running for second."
Honest speed up front will suit defending race winner Ron the Greek and his closing kick just fine, as it did when he nipped eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan by a head in this race 12 months ago.
Since his Foster victory, though, Ron the Greek has finished behind Fort Larned in three subsequent meetings and most recently ran third to Game On Dude in the Grade II Charles Town Classic.
"I guess after we beat him in the Foster, I thought we were at least as good as he was," said Ron the Greek's trainer Bill Mott, who will also saddle champion Royal Delta on Saturday's undercard in the Grade II Fleur de Lis. "We've got to try to turn the tables."
With 2011 Stephen Foster winner Pool Play and Grade I winner Golden Ticket also in the mix, whoever prevails Saturday will take down a handful of players who could very well be part of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic field.
Fort Larned's prior form was good enough to give him bragging rights over this slate of rivals — something Wilkes hopes he can conjure up again.
"Fort Larned has to step up to the plate and become the big dog again," Wilkes said. "That's what he's got to do."
Stephen Foster Handicap
When: 9:39 p.m. Saturday
Where: Churchill Downs
Purse: $500,000 (Grade I)
Distance: 11⁄8 miles