Entering the far turn of the 2012 Whitney Handicap, Brian Hernandez let the reins out a notch on the bay colt churning beneath him. And right around the three-sixteenths pole, when race favorite Ron the Greek was being carried out wide, Hernandez's mount, Fort Larned, began altering his own course — and his future.
"To win that (the Whitney), that changed the whole complexion for the year," trainer Ian Wilkes recalled during a teleconference this week. "That made us point to the Breeders' Cup. Probably if we didn't win that, whether we'd have gone on to the Breeders' Cup would be a tough one to answer."
The enlightenment that began when Fort Larned recorded a 11/4-length victory in last year's Whitney has turned into expectations of potentially history-making proportions this weekend. Now a three-time Grade I winner and reigning Breeders' Cup Classic victor, Fort Larned heads into his defense of Saturday's $750,000 Whitney as the 7-5 morning-line favorite in a field of eight older horses at Saratoga Race Course.
Since its inaugural running in 1928, only three horses have won multiple editions of the Whitney Invitational Handicap, and only one — Discovery, in the 1930s — won consecutive runnings.
Louisville-based Wilkes joked one would have "locked him in an asylum" if he had predicted Fort Larned's multiple Grade I-winning season in the early stages of 2012. A solid Grade III winner previously, all notions of the now 5-year-old horse changed in last season's Whitney when he defeated a field that included Grade I winners Ron the Greek — also back for another run this weekend — Flat Out and Hymn Book.
The way he beat those challengers after sitting third off the pace proved only the surface of what he could achieve. Fort Larned capped off 2012 with a gate-to-wire win in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Fort Larned silenced doubts that arose after two disastrous outings at the start of this year when he rolled to a 61/4-length win in the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs on June 15.
"He's probably a more battle-tested horse now," said Wilkes, alluding to Fort Larned's season debut in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap where he stumbled out of the gate, unseating Hernandez, and a follow-up fifth-place run in the Oaklawn Handicap. "To overcome and run as good as he did in the Foster after the first two races, it shows you the fortitude of the horse.
"His performance in last year's Whitney I still think is one of the best performances of his career. He proved he's not one-dimensional, he can sit off the pace. That was the turning point to see how good this horse was and how good he was getting."
Fort Larned, who will carry the high weight of 122 pounds in the Whitney, drew post position No. 3 Wednesday with 5-2 second choice Cross Traffic to his outside in the No. 4 post.
Two of Fort Larned's old sparring partners, graded stakes winners Successful Dan and Mucho Macho Man, drew inside him in post Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.
Successful Dan, the older half-brother of reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, can match Fort Larned in tactical versatility but never got within striking range while finishing fourth in the Stephen Foster.
"Julien (jockey Leparoux) said he just wasn't handling the track," Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Successful Dan, said of the Foster outing. "But nobody was going to beat Fort Larned that night. He was just an incredible horse that night."
Wilkes admits to still being stung over the fact Wise Dan collected the Eclipse Award for champion older male over Fort Larned for 2012, even kidding his friend LoPresti that he'd like a crack at his champion turf amazon on the dirt this season.
"I thought (Wise Dan) deserved Horse of the Year but I really felt I deserved older horse and that was a tough thing," Wilkes said. "I can't do anything about that. All I can do is try and showcase my horse and how good he is."
Whitney Invitational Handicap
When: 5:45 p.m.
Where: Saratoga Race Course
Purse: $750,000 (Grade I)
Distance: 11⁄8 miles
For: 3-year-olds and up
TV: HRTV, TVG
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 Successful Dan Leparoux 12-1
2Mucho Macho ManPrado 6-1
3Fort LarnedHernandez 7-5
4 Cross Traffic Velazquez 5-2
5 Ron the Greek Lezcano 6-1
7 Csaba Saez 20-1
8 Fast Falcon Alvarado 15-1