Neighborly Grade I double on Saturday
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Could the karma have gotten any more powerful at the south end of Clare Court this weekend?
Ian Wilkes' Barn 6, the last in a line of barns inside the small jogging track, housed Onion in 1973, when Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens trained him to an upset of Secretariat in the Whitney at Saratoga Race Course.
Jerkens is next door in barn 5 now, but No. 6 produced another Whitney winner on Saturday, when Fort Larned beat Ron the Greek by a length and a quarter under Brian Hernandez, who was riding in his first race ever at Saratoga.
One race before that, Jerkens saddled Emma's Encore to a win in the Grade I Prioress, so, although you'd be hard-pressed to find two less flamboyant operations on the Saratoga backstretch, that spot was oozing with a double dose of good feeling this morning.
"Absolutely. Oh, yeah," Jerkens said. "For me to win a Grade I at this stage is great. You have to be happy with that."
"I talked to him yesterday morning about his race before the races, and I saw him this morning circulating, and some guy took a picture of us," Wilkes said. "That was good. It's an honor to be associated and talked in the same sentence as the Chief, winning a Grade I on the same day. He's a legend, what he's done for racing."
Another parallel between the two barns is that neither is sure when or where their newly minted Grade I winners will run next.
Wilkes said he needs to see Fort Larned fully recovered from the Whitney before he considers running back in the Woodward in four weeks, and it will take more than a few days to determine that.
"When I come off Cloud 9, ask me then," he said. "I don't know. The horse will tell me, and I hate to say that. But I just don't know yet. We'll see how he bounces out. How to explain that is you watch your horse, you know your horse. You've just got to know him. Is he going to be knocked out for an extended period? Then you're not going to come into the race the right way. That's what you want to see."
What Wilkes does know is that adding blinkers two starts ago was the right move.
He started by using a three-quarter cup during training, and when Fort Larned responded well to that, Wilkes went with a narrow "cheater" cup just wide enough to keep Fort Larned from seeing jockey Brian Hernandez.
"It's just a little cup on the outside," Wilkes said. "He doesn't see the rider, so he listens instead of watching the rider. It's better to listen than watching."
"I was toiling away with him. It was something I just couldn't quite figure out. I always believed this horse had talent. I always thought he had more talent than he was giving me. I just had to find something to turn the corner. I put the blinkers on and I let him run. I told Brian, don't take ahold of him, let the horse run, let's see what we do. I let him run, and he hasn't looked back since."
Wilkes was an assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger when he had horses like Street Sense, Banshee Breeze and Travers winner Unshaded in barn 6.
As he and owner Janis Whitham plot a course for Fort Larned's future, they have two things to consider, the potential for year-end awards, and the fact that they plan to race him next year at 5.
"I haven't even thought of that, because I've won one Grade I, and I'm a little behind," he said. "It's a case of what's best for the horse. He's going to be around next year. Whatever I do is everything's important for him, short-term to long-term. Now that we've established where we are, we can sit down and knock out a plan for what our goals will be for next year."
Jerkens said that Emma's Encore was "walking pretty spritely" the morning after winning the Prioress, but running back in the seven-furlong Grade I Test on Travers Day Aug. 25 may be a little too soon to come back.
"The Test is a big race, 500,000, but it's three weeks, so we're damned if we do and damned if we don't," he said. "But anyway, we got this one, so we'll be happy about that."
He wouldn't rule out the possibility of stretching her out eventually, or even re-examining running her on turf, which she did at Kentucky Downs in September before coming to his barn.
"Naturally, if you can go longer, I think she can do that," Jerkens said. "You have to train them a little different and try them. I don't know any other way. The same thing about turf, you don't know until you try them. She ran one race on the turf. A lot of people say that a lot of horses run different there at Kentucky Downs, the grass is deeper or something, I don't know. I've never been there myself. But anyhow, we'll see what happens.