Part of thoroughbred racing's maddening charm is its unpredictability. You would have trouble finding a more extreme example than Fort Larned.
Last year he was the upset winner in the 11/8-mile Whitney Handicap at 7-1 odds and the 11/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic (at 9-1), giving jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. his first two Grade I victories. When Fort Larned made his 2013 debut March 9 at Gulfstream, he had a new trick to show his rider. When the gates opened, he stumbled and threw Hernandez to the dirt.
That didn't keep the 4-5 favorite from putting on a show. Fort Larned tore around the track for what would have been a world record if not for his significant weight break. "They tell me they clocked him in about 1:30 for a mile," Hernandez said. "He ran huge without me."
A month later, Fort Larned ran nowhere with him, fifth at 1-2 in the Oaklawn Handicap. Just when trainer Ian Wilkes was beginning to wonder, the good Fort Larned reappeared June 15 to dominate the prestigious Stephen Foster Handicap by 61/4 lengths at Churchill Downs. That brings us to Saturday at Saratoga, where Fort Larned will try to become the first winner of back-to-back Whitneys since Discovery took three straight (1934-36).
"The Foster was important and very gratifying," said Wilkes, a 48-year-old transplanted Australian. "He got back on track and let everyone know he wasn't just a one-year wonder.
"The Whitney is very important to me, and winning it changed everything for the horse. If he hadn't, it's hard to say if he would have gone to the Classic."
The 5-year-old son of E Dubai and Hernandez face a very tough field, including last year's Classic runner-up, Mucho Macho Man; Grade I winners Successful Dan, Ron the Greek and Alpha, and the speedy Cross Traffic, second by a nose in the Met Mile.
Fort Larned is the 7-5 favorite, which could create bad vibes at a place where so many short-priced standouts have failed. Saturday marks exactly 150 years since the Spa opened, and perhaps for old times' sake the ghosts in the wooden grandstand will conspire to bring down another star.
Wilkes never lost faith in his best horse ever and is upbeat.
"After seeing what happened in the first two races of the year, the Foster showed the fortitude of the horse," he said. "But it didn't do me any good. He's probably more battle-tested now. He's handled a lot of adversity and came back strong."