SARATOGA SPRINGS There’s a long-standing debate in major league baseball over whether it’s bad form to give a Cy Young Award winner the MVP, also.
Pitchers have their own award, the argument goes, and the MVP should be reserved for field players.
Horse racing’s version of that debate sprang to life last year, when Wise Dan, primarily a turf horse, hit the trifecta with awards for Horse of the Year, male turf horse and older male.
The “field player” who got the short end of the bat, in this case, was Fort Larned, who put together a spectacular season on conventional dirt.
Among his victories were the Grade I Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a purported championship race that led to no such thing.
The 5-year-old Fort Larned, a homebred owned by Janis Whitham, is pursuing a return to the Classic in what almost certainly will be his last season before retiring from racing, and today’s Whitney again will be a big part of that pursuit. Amiable trainer Ian Wilkes is not the grudge-holding type, but he still can’t help but wonder why his horse didn’t win the older male Eclipse.
That said, he’s looking forward to seeing Fort Larned accomplish many of the same things he did last year, and with Wise Dan again looming out there in position to make a clean sweep, postseason awards aren’t even a consideration.
“I’m not going to worry about it; I’m enjoying my horse,” Wilkes said on Thursday morning. “I’m fortunate that Mrs. Whitham is a sportslady, she wanted to race the horse. He’s coming back running, which is great.
“Wise Dan deserved Horse of the Year, there’s no question about that. But I thought I was the best dirt horse and deserved older horse, because nine times out of 10, they have a turf category and they have an older horse. I felt that I was the best dirt horse.”
Wise Dan will get his return shot at Saratoga next weekend, in the Fourstardave, but this weekend is about the Whitney and Fort Larned, the 7-5 morning-line favorite against a difficult field of seven rivals.
Post time for the Whitney, a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is 5:45 p.m., and it will be shown live on NBC as part of a broadcast from 5-6.
Following Fort Larned’s Classic win, by a half-length over Mucho Macho Man, his 2013 season went splat from the start.
Two steps out of the gate for the Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, Fort Larned stumbled and went to his knees, throwing regular rider Brian Hernandez to the ground before running off well ahead of the field.
Wilkes hustled him back into the Oaklawn Handicap in April instead of waiting for the spot they used as a Stephen Foster prep last year, the Alysheba on Kentucky Derby weekend.
Fort Larned finished fifth behind Cyber Secret at Oaklawn.
“The track [at Gulfstream] probably was a little loose, and he probably was a little overanxious,”
Wilkes said. “He was ready to run that day, and it’s a tough deal. That’s why they run races.
“He was just a little fresh. He wanted to get back out there. It was his first race in probably five months, since the Breeders’ Cup. The Oaklawn race was Plan B, and probably a bad mistake. I’m second-guessing myself, which I’m pretty good at. I went to Oaklawn because I thought the horse got loose, he didn’t show any signs of ill effects. I was just trying to get back on track, and it was probably the worst thing.”
Fort Larned shook off the Oaklawn Handicap defeat and stormed to a 61⁄4-length win over Golden Ticket in the Stephen Foster.
He used a stalking trip to win the Whitney last year, but is versatile enough to have won the BC Classic and Stephen Foster on the front end.
Hernandez will have some decisions to make heading into the first turn, because the speed horses are all on the inside.
“It [Stephen Foster] was a visually impressive race, it was impressive for the horse, and you’re back on track,” Wilkes said. “As impressive as he was, he’s still got to go back and do it again. It’s a lot of the same horses, and they’re good horses.
“The horse and the jockey have a good relationship. He trusts Brian, Brian trusts the horse. That’s the key. I think he’s a more battle-tested horse than he was last year. I don’t have a problem, and that’s a testament to the horse, to be able to come back and be at that level again this year.”
Whether that translates to an Eclipse is so far removed from Wilkes’ thought process that it’s dismissed with a shrug.
“You never give away winning the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” he said. “These accomplishments on the racetrack can’t be taken away.
“It’s about getting back to the Whitney. We made amends in the Stephen Foster, so come back to the Whitney and try to repeat here and repeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That’s what you’re trying to do. And if the award comes at the end of the year, that’s fine. That’s out of my control. The only thing I can control is what my horse does on the racetrack. That’s all I can do.”
Besides Fort Larned, Ron the Greek is also back from last year’s Whitney, when he was second by a length and a quarter.
One of the late runners in the field, he was third to Fort Larned in the Stephen Foster at the same nine-furlong Whitney distance.
“Hopefully, Cross Traffic, Fort Larned, and Mucho Macho Man all go at it,” trainer Bill Mott said. “Last year, actually, we felt after it was all said and done that the Whitney was probably his biggest race of the year, even though we were second. We got beat by a horse that was much better than us on the day.”
The “other” Dan, Successful Dan, was on a bit of a roll this year before finishing fourth in the Stephen Foster.
“I hope he shows up this time,” trainer Charlie LoPresti said. “He didn’t run his race at all at Churchill. He’s never run a bad race, and Julien [Leparoux] said he just wasn’t handling the track. Nobody was
going to beat Fort Larned that night. He was just an incredible horse that night.”
The longest shot on the board is 20-1 Csaba, who was supposed to run in the Birdstone as a prep for the Woodward, but was entered in the Whitney when the Birdstone didn’t fill.
His trainer, Phil Gleaves, is no stranger to winning big races at Saratoga, having saddled Wise Times to victory in the 1986 Travers.
Csaba was beaten a nose by Quick Wit at Saratoga last year when the Hall of Fame was taken off the turf and run at a mile and an eighth on the main track.
“I think we deserve a shot in here,” Gleaves said. “We still haven’t gotten to the bottom of him yet.
“It would be a great feeling to win the Whitney. Saratoga is everything. It is my favorite racetrack in the world, and I have been to most of them. It’s just a beautiful place to be. I try to come up here with horses that are live. As long as we can keep doing it, we’ll keep coming to Saratoga.”