Guarding the Fort

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Ian Wilkes stood on the steps looking over the paddock chute at Gulfstream Park to watch the Gulfstream Park Handicap March 9. Wilkes’ Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned was taking on five rivals in the Grade II dirt stakes. 

Wilkes, like all trainers, processed thoughts, concerns, worries and wonders as the field loaded into the gate in the mile chute at Gulfstream. Specifically for this race, this horse, Wilkes contemplated everything from concerns about shortening up to a mile, worries about making his first start in four months and wonders about a speed duel.

If only if…

Sent off as the favorite from post 3, Fort Larned pushed, launched, knuckled and buckled, catapulting jockey Brian Hernandez to the right as he slid to his left trying to keep his balance. The 5-year-old slammed his nose down, dragging his belly across the dirt but stayed on his feet. In a stride, the race – and all those concerns, worries and wonders about distance, fitness and tactics – was over. Now, Wilkes mind really raced as Fort Larned, an earner of over $3.6 million ran loose down the backstretch of Gulfstream Park.

Asked about the moment, Wilkes let out a deep sigh.

“A hundred and one things went through my mind,” Wilkes said. “At first, it’s like, ‘No. Really?’ Then, ‘How bad did he hurt himself?’ Then, ‘Oh my God, don’t try the gap.’ We come home at the quarter-pole gap, so you’re just hoping, ‘Don’t try to go home, don’t try to go home.’ There are so many things racing through your mind, ‘What have I done? Has this horse blown his career?’ What do you do, jump up and down, scream, yell, cuss? Do whatever you want, but it’s not going to change the situation.”

Wilkes watched as Fort Larned blitzed through on the inside, reins dangling, knot bouncing off his withers to open a big, useless, lead on the stunned field. Fort Larned declined the gap, turning for home in isolated splendor before easing up in the last furlong and drifting to the outside. An outrider caught him near the five-eighths pole where he always pulls up.

“Very intelligent horse, smart horse,” Wilkes said. “People who have watched racing for 50, 60 years say they’ve never seen a horse do what he did after he got up. How do you not pull a muscle, break something, anything?”

Wilkes’ staccato, pressured thoughts didn’t ease just because it was over. Wilkes went back to the barn and began the long, slow, agonizing process of collecting data, waiting for the damage. Like dusting for fossils in a burning building.

“You know with horses, sometimes nothing shows up right away, after the race he was walking great, that’s the first step, didn’t pull a shoe, didn’t half pull one off, he grabbed his heel but it was superficial,” Wilkes said. “It’s a day-to-day thing. You get through the afternoon and say, ‘What about tomorrow?’ You keep a close eye on him, he’s still walking good, ‘OK.’ He’s full of himself, ‘OK.’ I had to wait a few extras days to take him to the track because of the cut. You say, ‘OK, let’s go ahead and gallop him.’ You get through that. Then you get to your breeze, ‘Just a light half, I don’t want anything special, just let him stretch his legs, just get a feel of him.’ Just to see if he’s hiding something on me. No, did everything perfect, came back good. After that, you let out a sigh, maybe we dodged a bullet.”

The bullet is reloaded.

Fort Larned breezed four times since his gate skid and lines up as the 7/5 favorite in Saturday’s Grade II Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park, co-feature on a stellar card. Janis Whitham’s homebred takes on nine rivals including Razorback Handicap winner Cyber Secret and Pimlico Special winner Alternation.

Fort Larned arrived at Oaklawn Monday and breezed an easy half mile in 51 seconds Wednesday. He’ll make his Oaklawn debut on a countrywide tour that has included stops at Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream, Churchill Downs, Prairie Meadows, Saratoga, Belmont and Santa Anita in the past 14 months.

Wilkes hopes the stumble is nothing but a bump on the tour.

“That’s racing, those things happen. You’ve got to look at the positive side of it, he didn’t get hurt, Bryan’s OK, that’s the main thing,” Wilkes said. “He looked good this morning, he skipped over the ground and got over it good. He’s a different horse this year, a more mature horse, he’s taken his game to a different level, but he still has to do it in the afternoon.”

After the Gulfstream melee, Wilkes sent Fort Larned to the gate for a routine meet and greet. There were no skeletons.

“He walked straight in, he didn’t fear it, he stood like a statue, he was full of confidence, nothing. What do you do? You don’t want to break him, he’s broken 100 times,” Wilkes said. “You just make sure he didn’t have any adverse reaction to it. I just put it down to one of those things. But, yeah, we’ll be watching him closely every time he breaks, we’ll be a little anxious until we get to the gate – until we get out of the gate.”

Watch him stumble.

Watch him win Breeders’ Cup Classic.