New ballgame for Whitney

- -

Fort Larned was not the horse he would become by year’s end as Ian Wilkes prepared him for last year’s Whitney Invitational Handicap.

He was easy to overlook in the field that lined up that day, a bunch that included five Grade 1 winners. Fort Larned was merely the winner of two Grade 3 races in the Midwest, a listed stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and a colt who bounced around from surface to surface with varying degrees of success earlier in his career. Brian Hernandez Jr., who rode Fort Larned to victory that afternoon over Ron the Greek and Flat Out, was riding at Saratoga for the first time.

Quite a bit has changed since last year and it’s a completely different story heading into today’s 86th renewal of the $750,000 Whitney

Now Fort Larned is the defending Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. He’s also the recent winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster, a race he was whipped in last year before a victory at Prairie Meadows.

It’s safe to say Fort Larned will not be 7-1 for this year’s Whitney, or perhaps ever again.

Even safer to say, Hernandez might not get it as easy as he did in the Stephen Foster, where Fort Larned “pulled the hearts” out of the opposition according to his rider.

And it might not make a difference.

“I feel good about him,” trainer Ian Wilkes said as he followed Fort Larned to the racetrack for his gallop in his usual spot in the first set Thursday morning. “I felt this way coming into his last race. I felt good.”

Wilkes felt good and Fort Larned ran even better. He won the Foster by 6 1/4, cruising all the way on the lead. Fort Larned raced that same way when he won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, hounded the throughout by Mucho Macho Man before finally holding off that rival, who is here for the Whitney, to win by a half-length. Hernandez didn’t ride him that way in last year’s Whitney, with Endorsement and Trickmeister battling it out early, and he might not need to ride him that way again today.

Again, it’s a completely different story. Different from last year and different even from earlier this season, when everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Yet here Fort Larned, who began his 2013 campaign by losing Hernandez when the gates opened for the Gulfstream Park Handicap, is again.

A new group of opponents-although many familiar foes and one particular speedy new shooter to worry about-and maybe a new style should it be necessary.

Janis Whitham’s homebred son of E Dubai has trained smartly at Saratoga since Wilkes shipped from his base at Churchill Downs in mid-July. He’s breezed three times-all with Hernandez aboard-as Wilkes doesn’t want to leave anything to chance. The first work, 5 furlongs in 1:03.81, was unsatisfactory for the Australian-born horseman so he took a page from some of the legends who have trained on these hallowed grounds and sent him out again three days later. He breezed that day in the slop and six days later was at it again.

The workout that day got everyone’s attention, especially the man on his back.

“His last work, Ian had a horse break off in front of him,” said Hernandez, who arrived in Saratoga Wednesday night and was out to watch Fort Larned train Thursday. “The horse actually opened up a little bit down the lane and when I squeezed on him, he picked him up pretty fast. He just went by him really, really easy.

“He kind of likes that now. He likes having a target in front of him and he gets kind of competitive when he chases after them. He did that to a couple of them at Churchill, too, before the Foster. A couple for (Wayne) Lukas broke off in front of him and he just went by them really easy. He’s got that competitive nature. He’s figuring it out more and more now as a 5-year-old. Maybe he’s one of those horses that it just took a while for him to figure it out.”

That statement should be of principal concern for rival horsemen looking to collect a new sterling silver, three-handled chalice trophy designed especially for this year’s Whitney. The winner will also get a special custom-designed blanket made of 500 pink roses, the favorite flower of Marylou Whitney, the Saratoga socialite and torchbearer for the Whitney family.

Mucho Macho Man, third in the Kentucky Derby back in 2011 and a multiple graded stakes winner, tried to outrun Fort Larned for a flowered blanket before and finished a half-length short in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Ron the Greek and Successful Dan tried to outrun Fort Larned last time in the Stephen Foster and came up short, finishing third and fourth, respectively.

Alpha, winner of last year’s Travers and Jim Dandy, tried him in the Breeders’ Cup, too, but was no match.

Fort Larned has never faced the field’s remaining three opponents, but on paper lays over Csaba and Fast Falcon.

Cross Traffic, the 5-2 second choice on the morning line for Todd Pletcher behind the 7-5 favorite Fort Larned, is the known and the unknown.

What’s known is his speed, enough to gas to get a half in :44.88 and still only lose the Met Mile by a nose in 1:34.17. He was also second in the Westchester going the same distance, finishing a head behind Flat Out in 1:32.99.

What’s unknown is how he’ll handle the Whitney’s 9 furlongs and around two turns for the first time in just his fifth career start.

The projected speed is all lined up on the inside of Cross Traffic, who drew post four. Inside of the Unbridled’s Song colt are Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man and Successful Dan.

“It’s funny how the draw turned out, with the three speed horses all inside,” Wilkes said. “Everything else is all outside. Now it’s all in a cluster there. I’ll tell you one horse that got the worst of the draw is Successful Dan. He got the 1. He wants to lay a little closer, but he’s right on the inside and probably will have to go to hold his spot.”

Charlie LoPresti said he was a “little worried” about the rail for Successful Dan, who was a shorter price than Fort Larned in the Stephen Foster. The loss in the Foster-15 lengths when all was finished-was the first time he didn’t cross the finish in front in Louisville.

LoPresti, who briefly toyed with the idea of running Wise Dan in the Whitney before opting for a title defense in next weekend’s Fourstardave for the 2012 Horse of the Year, said older half-brother Successful Dan was “mad” after the Foster.

“That horse, he’s never run a bad race at Churchill,” LoPresti said. “Julien [Leparoux] said he was fighting the racetrack the whole way, trying to get ahold of it. He ran such a great race in the Ben Ali. I throw that Stephen Foster out. That horse of Ian’s is a really good horse. Nobody was going to beat him that night. Nobody. I don’t care, but the rest of the horses didn’t run a jump, so I have to throw my horse’s race out.”

LoPresti is based the rest of the year at Keeneland and the summer sojourn to Saratoga always treats the horses he brings north well. Turallure finally woke up with a strong second in an allowance race earlier in the meet to set him up for a run in the Grade 2 Bernard Baruch. Wise Dan picked up where he left off, impressing anyone with working eyeballs with strong works prepping for the Fourstardave. And then comes Successful Dan, whose training here gives every sign he’s thriving, too.

“He’s as good as I can have him,” LoPresti said. “He’s trained better than I’ve ever seen him train. Really.”