LOUISVILLE — With every split that flashed on the Churchill Downs tote board during Saturday's 11⁄8 miles of the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, the cloud of doubt that had surrounded Fort Larned of late began to dissipate.
As the son of E Dubai continued lengthening his stride from the five rivals running futilely behind him, those who maintained the faith had clear-cut proof the reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner didn't leave his best days behind him in the 2012 season.
The angst from two prior disastrous outings this year was healed in one front-running swoop Saturday night as Fort Larned defeated a field that included four other Grade I winners by 61/4 lengths in the $536,300 Stephen Foster.
Trainer Ian Wilkes never lacked for pride when it came to his charge nicknamed "Big Ugly." But after a nightmare outing in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap March 9 where Fort Larned stumbled out of the gate and unseated jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., and subsequent fifth-place run in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap, Wilkes needed to see the Eclipse Award finalist run as powerfully as he has trained recently.
As he did during his Breeders' Cup triumph, Hernandez let his big, bay mount roll as he pleased in the Foster, clocking an opening quarter in :23.69 and a half in :46.96 en route to crossing the wire in 1:47.45, the second-fastest final time in the race's history.
"That's what I expected the first time out and we were just unfortunate with the stumble and everything," Wilkes said. "I never questioned him, but sometimes you question what you do. Leading into (Oaklawn) he didn't give me the signs that I thought I was going to get.
"It was gratifying to get the horse back and prove he's as good as I thought he was and show he wasn't a one-year wonder."
Fort Larned is most dangerous when he can get into a quick but controlled rhythm up front. With only 9-to-5 race favorite Take Charge Indy threatening to go with him early, Hernandez was swelling with confidence himself as he felt the bay horse gaining momentum with each quarter.
"We've kind of figured out that if you let him be fast early, he kind of finishes faster," Hernandez said. "He's the kind of horse where from the five-eighths pole home, he can still click off :12s and sub-:11s, and that's what he did tonight.
"I thought he was the best horse and I thought he would show up to the Fort Larned of last year."
With Fort Larned exploding to a 61/2-length lead in the lane and Take Charge Indy beginning a descent into last, Golden Ticket was left to outfight defending race winner Ron the Greek for second with 5-to-2 second choice Successful Dan fading to fourth.
"He wasn't handling the track tonight, he was bobbling pretty good trying to stay up and keep his position," said Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Successful Dan. "That horse (Fort Larned) just got away from us and was gone. No one was going to close any ground on him."
After running eighth in the 2012 edition of the Foster, Fort Larned went on to win three of his final four starts that year including the Grade I Whitney Handicap, which will likely be his next target.
"I think he's just as good as he was late last year," Wilkes said. "It's very gratifying."
Funny Proposition upsets Royal Delta in Fleur de Lis
You don't beat the best by backing down, which is exactly why the plan for Funny Proposition in Saturday's Grade II Fleur de Lis was to attack champion Royal Delta with her own game.
Using the same front-running tactics that earned Royal Delta her second consecutive Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last November, Funny Proposition upset the two-time Eclipse Award-winning mare by 5 lengths in the 11⁄8-mile Fleur de Lis.
Similar to when she captured the Fleur de Lis a year ago, Royal Delta was making her first start since finishing 10th against males in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Sent off as the 1-to-5 pick in the five-horse field, the 5-year-old mare made a brief rally around the final turn but flattened out as Funny Proposition earned her first graded stakes score in nine career starts.
"We thought we would take it to (Royal Delta) right away," said Norman Casse, assistant to trainer Mark Casse. "We had never got to see Funny run where she was actually getting race fit. Today she was finally race fit. For a long time, she's shown she's our best horse."
Bill Mott, trainer of Royal Delta, could only offer up minor excuses for the disappointing outing.
"She looked like she got a little hot going to the gate today," Mott said. "Maybe it's just a matter of getting back in action."
In other graded stakes on the Foster undercard, Code West gave trainer Bob Baffert his 100th winner at Churchill Downs when he edged Uncaptured in the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes while Kitten's Dumplings took the Grade III Regret Stakes.