Whether you call it karma or any other name, there comes a time and place in everyone’s life when positive forces meet at once and create moments to cherish for all time.
For a 4-year-old Thoroughbred named Fort Larned, his trainer Ian Wilkes, owner and breeder Janis Whitham, and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., those positive forces came together on racing’s greatest day and in its richest race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was here in front of over 50,000 fans that Fort Larned dug down deep to hold off Mucho Macho Man in one of the great stretch battles in Breeders’ Cup history.
On the mornings of Nov. 2 and 3, hopes ran high at Barn 99 in the far corner of the Santa Anita backstretch. For the 80-year-old Whitham and her family, this was hallowed ground. Not only was it the home of her longtime trainer, Ron McAnally, it also had been home for her and her late husband Frank’s Hall of Fame filly Bayakoa, who scored back-to-back victories in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) in 1989 and ’90. Now, here was Whitham 22 years later back in the Breeders’ Cup with Bayakoa’s grandson.
“When Mrs. Whitham asked me if she could stable her horse in my barn, I said, ‘Are you kidding? If I don’t have a stall I’ll move one of my horses out and make room,” McAnally said. “If you need an exercise rider or anything else, just let me know.’
“Mrs. Whitham is the classiest, nicest lady you’ll ever meet. She always studied the horses and the pedigrees and knew about every one of them. She was the one who got Frank interested. Both of them have always accepted defeat graciously and would look ahead to the next race.”
For Whitham, this was the continuation of the legacy she and her husband had built more than two decades earlier.
“We’re excited. We’re here,” she said while walking back to the grandstand from the barn. “It’s the big stage and we have the whole family here, as well as our racing family that was pretty special to us. Ricardo, Bayakoa’s groom, still works for Ron. And Eduardo (McAnally’s longtime assistant Eduardo Inda who went out on his own) has one horse in Ron’s barn. We just spent 15 minutes talking about Bayakoa.”
Whitham experienced one of the most bittersweet feelings ever following a victory. It was while dueling with Bayakoa down the stretch in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff that Go For Wand suffered her fatal injury, falling heavily to the ground in front of a horrified crowd at Belmont Park.
“That was terrible,” she said. “The main thing they remember was the injury to Go For Wand. They don’t remember Bayakoa’s courage or her victory in the Distaff the year before. It was all such a numbing experience you didn’t even feel like you ran that day.”
Whitham, whose husband was killed in a plane crash in 1993, is a fourth generation descendant of pioneer families that moved to Kansas from Indiana and Iowa. She named Fort Larned after an old fort in western Kansas.
For Wilkes, who worked as assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger and has shared his barn for almost 20 years, this was his opportunity to stamp his own footprints in racing’s history books. Although Nafzger was the trainer of record of 2007 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Street Sense, he’ll be the first person to tell you that Wilkes was just as instrumental in the colt’s success as he was. It was Wilkes who made it a lot easier for Nafzger to semi-retire several years ago, taking over the majority of his horses and clients.
The Whithams began sending horses to Nafzger about eight years ago, knowing they were soon going to turn their horses over to Wilkes once Nafzger began cutting back.
When Fort Larned captured the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) this year, Nafzger helped celebrate following the race, feeling like a proud father.
“Now you figured out how I did so good,” Nafzger said at the time. “I had Ian behind me. When I was getting all the glory (with Kentucky Derby and grade I Travers winner Street Sense, Travers winner Unshaded, and the grade I Alabama winners Banshee Breeze and Lady Joanne) Ian was back in Kentucky working.”
Nov. 3, the day of the Classic, also was a special day for Hernandez, who was celebrating his 27th birthday. Following the Classic he said, “Fort Larned gave me the greatest birthday present ever.”
Hernandez, despite his success aboard Fort Larned, on whom he has won four of five starts, is not among the elite riders in the country and is still pretty much an every day working stiff. The day after his Whitney victory he was at Ellis Park to ride one of Wilkes’ horses in s $7,500 maiden claiming race.
So, one of the most popular storylines was in place for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Following Fort Larned’s third-place finish as the 5-2 favorite in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) over a deep, wet track he was not fond of, the colt was ignored in the Classic, going off at 9-1 in the 12-horse field.
The overwhelming 6-5 favorite was the brilliant and consistent Game On Dude, trained by Bob Baffert, who had been shut out so far in the two-day event. With the earlier victories of Royal Delta in the previous day’s Ladies Classic (gr. I), Groupie Doll in the Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I), and Wise Dan in the Mile (gr. IT), the pressure was on Game On Dude to overtake all three for Horse of the Year honors. Many believed a victory in the Classic would all but clinch the award for the son of Awesome Again.
With the Santa Anita dirt surface showing an extreme speed bias, it looked as if it would play to Game On Dude’s advantage. Another who looked to be coming into the Classic in top form and with the right running style was the towering Mucho Macho Man, who along with Fort Larned were the last two Classic horses to arrive at Santa Anita following the postponement of their flight due to the devastating storm back east.
Although Fort Larned was out of harm’s way in Kentucky, he had to wait an extra day for the flight out of New York that included Mucho Macho Man. Instead of taking off from JFK as originally scheduled, the remaining New York horses had to van up to Newburgh, N.Y. and fly out of Stewart International Airport. They stopped in Kentucky to pick up Fort Larned and the others and then flew to California, arriving three days before the race.
After being put in his new stall, Fort Larned was given a bath just to cool him off from the long trip and then walked around the shed.
Many of the handicappers felt Fort Larned might be at a disadvantage going 1 1/4 miles after the way he tired in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But in reality, if ever a horse was made for 1 1/4 miles at Santa Anita it was Fort Larned. Not only did his maternal granddam Bayakoa win three grade I stakes at Santa Anita, his dam, Arlucea, is by Broad Brush, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap. Broad Brush’s sire, Ack Ack, also won the Santa Anita Handicap. Fort Larned’s sire, E Dubai, is out of a mare by Lord at War, who won the Santa Anita Handicap. Also in Fort Larned’s pedigree is Bold Bidder, winner of the mile and a quarter Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. And E Dubai himself won the mile and a quarter Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and finished second in the mile and a quarter Travers (gr. I) and Super Derby (gr. I).
In a race where most of the major stars have changed hands over their career, it was refreshing to see a horse like Fort Larned and the close bond between his owner and trainer. Game On Dude began his career with trainer Mike Mareina before being sold. Ron the Greek had previously had three trainers before being sold and turned over to Bill Mott. Flat Out also was sent to Mott after being trained by Scooter Dickey for most of his career. Richard’s Kid had been trained by Dick Small and Bob Baffert before being sold and sent to Doug O’Neill. And Mucho Macho Man began his career trained by Bill White before being sold and turned over to Kathy Ritvo.
The big question was who would take advantage of the speed-biased track. At the break, it was Fort Larned, who had won the Cornhusker Handicap (gr. III) at Prairie Meadows wire to wire, who went to the front, with Mucho Macho Man taking up the chase from the outside. No one knew it at the time, but the race was over. The pair would maintain that position all the way to the finish.
Game On Dude for whatever reason couldn’t keep up, dropping back to sixth. To Honor and Serve and Handsome Mike were right behind through a lively opening quarter in :23.20. Fort Larned led by a half-length over Mucho Macho Man after a half in :46.50.
Wilkes’ strategy to run the closers off their feet early seemed to be paying off, as the quick pace had the field strung out nearly 20 lengths.
“The break was everything,” Wilkes said. “If he didn’t break well he’d have no chance. I had to take the closers out of their game, because if I sat around and waited for them they were gonna get you.”
Hernandez added, “In the post parade he showed how fired up he was. He was on his game today, and this is the kind of horse where you need to stay out of his way and let him do his own thing. After Ian put the blinkers on him last fall at Churchill Downs he’s become more forward.”
With Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Flat Out, Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Stephen Foster (gr. I) winner Ron the Greek, and two-time Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Richard’s Kid all some 15 to 20 lengths back, they were at the mercy of Fort Larned’s speed and acceleration, which he had demonstrated in the Whitney when he blew his field away nearing the top of stretch with an electrifying turn of foot. Now, it was time for Hernandez to pull the trigger again and separate himself from the closers.
He gave Fort Larned the green light and the colt quickly opened several lengths on Mucho Macho Man through a testing third quarter in :23.62. He went around the far turn in :24.54, as Mucho Macho Man made his run at him. Those two quick quarters, combined with the fast pace, buried the rest of the field, as the two leaders pulled well clear of the pack, getting the mile in 1:34.66.
Now the battle was on. Mucho Macho Man, under Mike Smith, pulled on near even terms, but Fort Larned dug in gamely and refused to let him get by. They continued their battle the entire length of stretch, pulling seven lengths clear of the others. As much as Mucho Macho Man tried, he could not get by Fort Larned, who hit the wire a half-length in front, covering the mile and a quarter in a sharp 2:00.11. It was 6 1/2 lengths back to Flat Out, who finished three-quarters of a length ahead of his stablemate Ron the Greek. Game On Dude was never a factor, fading to seventh.
As soon as they passed the wire, a figure came darting toward the track, literally leaping off the ground and shouting with joy. It was none other than Charles Lopresti, who had just won the Breeders' Cup Mile with Wise Dan. Lopresti wrapped his arms around Wilkes in a bear hug, releasing whatever emotion he still had stored up inside him. Lopresti, Wilkes, and Buff Bradley, trainer of the brilliant Groupie Doll, winner of the Filly & Mare Sprint earlier in the day, had formed a bonding friendship as the "Little Guys" from Kentucky who were going to Santa Anita as a team, dreaming of sweeping their respective Breeders' Cup races. It was yet another dream on this day that came true.
Fortunately, for Wilkes’ wife, Tracey, she did not have to endure watching this gut-wrenching stretch battle.
“As soon as they came out of the gate and I knew he had gotten away well I turned my back to the track for the entire race,” she said. “I just couldn’t bear to watch it, and Mrs. Whitham’s grandson Travis had to tell me where he was.
“I can’t believe this. I just feel so awesome for Ian. He deserves this win. He’s been involved with so many good horses with Carl, but this is his horse. He got him from the start and has worked for three years with him. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. To Ian, it’s not about the money; it’s all about the horses.”
It was difficult for Tracey to contain her emotion after the race and come to the realization of what had just happened.
“I have to watch the replay to really believe that we actually won,” she said. “This is so special. The kids are both here and there are so many friends of ours who have followed us a long way. I can’t even tell you how many text messages I’ve gotten already. We would never take anything away from Carl Nafzger; he’s our family. But this was the notch on Ian’s belt that shows he’s as good a trainer as Carl is and has followed in his footsteps. And I know Carl is going to be very proud of him. I can’t wait to see them when they get together.
“And how awesome to win this for Mrs. Whitham. You think how far back she goes with this horse’s family. One thing about Mrs. Whitham, she’s been in this industry for a while and has had some of the biggest trainers train for her. But she chose Ian and stuck with him. We have very loyal owners, who switched from Carl to Ian without any questions. I don’t think we’ve had anybody who’s jumped ship.”
Back in Kentucky, Nafzger watched the race with his wife Wanda and just about lost it when Fort Larned prevailed.
“We got to get a new couch, because I tore our couch apart watching that stretch run,” he said.
Nafzger waited about an hour for all the post-race hoopla to die down before calling Wilkes. The first thing Wilkes said to him was, “We did it.” The victory also stirred up memories of a young Australian exercise rider who had just arrived in America in 1989.
“My assistant at the time, Sharon Peters, who also was from Australia, had pointed out this young kid on a horse,” Nafzger recalled. “I watched him ride and told her, ‘Don’t let this boy out of my sight.’ He was a natural and had such great hands. We hired him and the following year he was exercising Unbridled and rode him right through his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Now to see him win the Classic on his own as a trainer makes us so proud.
“It’s such a great story. This is all about Ian. I had nothing to do with it. We’ve learned a lot from each other over the years. Ian has always been a student of the game and understanding how a race should be run. He has a natural feel for a good horse. When he took over in January of 2006 and I just kept a few horses for Mr. (James) Tafel, he never changed anything and just kept building. We’ve had a great relationship and I’m as proud of him as if he were my own son. Wanda and I are out of this world right now.”
But as Wilkes always points out, “You have to have the horse,” and Fort Larned has been a project from the beginning. Even Whitham’s son, Clay, admitted, “I never thought the horse was that good, because he was so slow developing. He was just a plain bay horse and nothing more. He wasn’t flashy at all. He finally grew up at Churchill Downs last November in the slop. When he won the Skip Away (gr. III) at Gulfstream this winter and set a track record, I finally thought, ‘Hey, he’s got some talent.’ But I sure wasn’t counting on winning this race.”
Clay’s assessment of Fort Larned was justified as the colt made little impression early in his career, scoring only a maiden victory in his first six starts. His only try in stakes competition resulted in an eighth-place finish in the Arlington Classic. It was after a dismal showing in a Churchill Downs allowance race, in which he finished 10th, beaten over 21 lengths, that Wilkes decided to try blinkers. In his next start, an off-the-turf allowance race in the slop at Churchill, he won by 6 3/4 lengths and a new career was born -- not only for Fort Larned, but for his trainer as well.
Because of the colt’s long pasterns in front and back, Wilkes runs him in four bandages to prevent them from rubbing against each other.
Although Janis Whitham, who keeps a dozen mares and about 10 horses in training, has been in the sport for decades, this one got to her, especially with her beloved Bayakoa playing such an important role.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see that guy come down the stretch like that,” she said.
Everyone connected with Fort Larned paid tribute to Mucho Macho Man and the job Ritvo has done with him. When told that Mucho Macho Man is a June 15 foal and should be even better next year, Wilkes replied, “Don’t say that, because I’m coming back next year.”
Said Ritvo, “What can you do? He ran a winning race. The winner was a great horse today. He ran a great race. Congratulations to Mr. Wilkes and his whole team. I’m so proud of my horse. He gave 100 percent today.”
Mucho Macho Man was an amazing story himself and came so close to culminating what has been a fairy tale saga for both him and Ritvo. To show how far they have come, on June 15, 2008. Ritvo, stricken with cariomyapathy, lay in a hospital bed in Miami, Fla., hooked up to an IV of dopamine, a heart muscle stimulant that was keeping her alive. For six months, her family didn’t know if each day would be her last.
Some 250 miles away in Ocala, a strapping bay colt was born at Carole and John Rio’s farm, unusually late for a Thoroughbred. When the foal was delivered in the field, he was feared dead, as he lay motionless on the ground.. They worked feverishly to restore him and said prayers over his “lifeless” body. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the colt suddenly rose to his feet and ran off. That’s when the Rios began calling him Lazarus.
Five months later, as the weanling colt romped about his paddock, Ritvo also “rose” from the dead following a successful heart transplant. Six months later, she was back at the racetrack training horses.
As if pre-ordained, Ritvo and the colt, named Mucho Macho Man, would one day embark on a fairy tale journey that brought them to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), where Mucho Macho Man finished third. And now, here they were only a half-length away from winning the richest race in America and a possible shot at Horse of the Year.
Although disappointed in Game On Dude’s peformance and his own Breeders’ Cup shutout, Baffert has been able to put things in different perspective this year following his heart attack in Dubai in March.
“It was a tough day for me, but I’ve had tougher,” he said. “Joe Torre (part owner of Game In Dude) told me you’ve got to forget it. Things that happened five seconds ago, you’ve got to let them go and move on. And that’s what will happen.”
The morning after the race, as Fort Larned was out for his morning walk, Wilkes commented how well he came out of the race.
“He looks like he never ran,” he said. “He’s full of himself. It’s fantastic to have won this for the Whithams; they are wonderful people. When you have people like that in racing that’s what it’s all about. I’ve been fortunate to take over for a bunch of great owners. It was a testament to Carl because he put them all together, and to carry on what he started was very special.
“This has all been very humbling. It still hasn’t sunk in yet. And I don’t think I want it to.”