Fort Larned needed 1 minute, 42.93 seconds to win his first stakes race, the $60,000 Challenger Stakes in 2012 at Tampa Bay Downs. On that March 3 afternoon, trainer Ian Wilkes didn't know he would be California Dreamin' later that season.
"(That day or) throughout the year, (did I think) I'm going to the Breeders' Cup? No, I wouldn't have told you that," Wilkes, 48, said. "That would have been very ambitious for me."
Fort Larned used the Challenger, a 1�th-mile race at Oldsmar, to jump-start a sensational career. He has since won five graded stakes, all at different tracks, and gave Wilkes his biggest victory Nov. 3 with a gate-to-wire victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
Today, the E Dubai 5-year-old horse takes a shot at history in the $750,000 Whitney Invitational Handicap, where he recorded his first of three Grade I victories. Only one horse, three-time winner Discovery (1934-36), has been a back-to-back winner in the 86-year-old race at Saratoga (Springs, N.Y.). Other multiple winners are Kelso (1961, 1963, 1965) and Commentator (2005, 2008). The 1⅛th-mile Whitney is Race 10 at 5:45 p.m. with simulcast wagering available at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, the Downs and Tampa Greyhound Track. It will be televised from 5-6 p.m. on Ch. 8.
"(Fort Larned) is telling me he's ready," Wilkes said. "I couldn't be happier with him. It would be an honor to win back-to-back, and I've been very fortunate to train horses for Marylou (Whitney)."
Fort Larned, the 7-5 morning-line favorite, drew post 3 in the eight-horse field. He will be ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr. and comes off an impressive victory in the Grade I $500,000 Stephen Foster at June 15 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. It was a key race for Fort Larned, who was unplaced in two starts after his Breeders' Cup Classic score for owner Janis Whitham.
"His (Stephen Foster) win was very gratifying," Wilkes said. "It shows that he wasn't just a one-year wonder. He's probably more battle-tested now because he's overcome a lot of adversity."
Fort Larned has more than $4 million in career earnings and is going for his 10th victory in start No. 23. The Kentucky-bred raced twice at Oldsmar with little fanfare (three wins from 10 previous starts). In his 2012 debut at the Downs, Fort Larned encountered traffic issues and finished fourth at the handicap level. A month later, Ronnie Allen Jr. rode him to the Challenger victory.
The Whitney is one of two Breeders' Cup Challenge races today. The other is the Grade I $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap (Race 8, 8:40) at Del Mar (Calif.). Also this afternoon is the Grade II $750,000 West Virginia Derby (Race 8, 5:45) at Chester, where Downs trainer Joan Scott saddles Ruler of Love.