A little shine was still on Ian Wilkes’ face as he was greeted at the end of the tunnel after a race at Keeneland a little more than halfway through the recently concluded meet.
The horse Wilkes ran that day was Motor City, a longshot in an off-the-turf two-other-than allowance race, and it was the third of three that Wilkes ran Oct. 17 that didn’t win. That kind of meet, actually, as Wilkes ended the 17-day stand winless from 22 starts.
Things are off to a better start back home in Louisville and three days into the Churchill Downs fall meet back the Wilkes barn won one of nine with two thirds.
Things stand to get a whole lot better Saturday, when Wilkes starts defending champion Fort Larned in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. But in a lot of ways they are already better, especially so after Fort Larned won the inaugural Homecoming Classic a little more than a month ago.
Fort Larned breezed five times since that victory – a 1 1/2-length score over the improving Grade 1 Clark Handicap-bound Windswept – and Wilkes couldn’t be happier.
“He’s doing great now,” Ian Wilkes said that day at Keeneland, two days after Fort Larned breezed a half in :49 and five days before the E Dubai horse went 5 furlongs in a bullet 1:00.60.
Wilkes said the victory in the Homecoming, which came after a disappointing loss in the Whitney Invitational and a missed start in the Woodward at Saratoga, was “exactly what he needed.”
Getting back to Santa Anita – which played favorably to front-runners and stalkers during the opening day of the Breeders’ Cup program Friday – should also help Fort Larned. He took the field gate-to-wire last year, holding off Mucho Macho Man by a half with the rest of the field strung out and in tatters.
Fort Larned will meet Mucho Macho Man again, along with 2012 Classic third-place finisher Flat Out and seventh-place finisher and 8-5 morning-line favorite Game On Dude. Not to mention talented 3-year-olds Palace Malice, Will Take Charge and Moreno, Europeans Declaration of War and Planteur, and darkhorse longshots Last Gunfighter and Paynter.
Fort Larned seeks to become the second back-to-back winner of the Classic and first since Tiznow pulled it off in 2000 and 2001.
Wilkes spoke a similar theme in both August at Saratoga, October at Keeneland and November at Santa Anita that a second win in the Classic would be hugely gratifying and a “testament to the horse” since 2013 has been such a “roller-coaster ride.” Fort Larned didn’t repeat in the Whitney, finishing fifth in a strong renewal, but did improve on an eighth in the 2012 Stephen Foster with a win in 2013.
“At least he won the Foster this year and he did not do that last year,” Wilkes said. “You can never stop believing. If you do you are in trouble. In this business, you have to stay optimistic.”
The Classic caps Saturday’s nine-race Breeders’ Cup card with a post time of 8:35 p.m. ET. The 1 1/4-mile race and lead-up will be shown on NBC from 8-9 p.m., with the remainder of the Breeders’ Cup card on the NBC Sports Network from 3:30-8 p.m.
Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup entries.
Watch 2013 Homecoming Classic.
Read about Fort Larned before the Whitney.
Read about Fort Larned’s jockey, Brian Hernandez Jr.