Saratoga Provides Smiles For Churchill’s Wilkes, Hernandez

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.

Historic Saratoga in Upstate New York has a reputation for shabby treatment of favorites in its major races, and nothing that happened last weekend at the track known to its admirers as “The Spa” diminished that reputation.

Churchill Downs-based Shackleford finished last behind a 36-1 shot for trainer Dale Romans on Sunday as the heavy favorite in the six-furlong Alfred G. Vanderbilt, while Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, the 83-year-old New York legend best known for his upsets of the mighty Secretariat with Prove Out and Onion in 1973, notched a surprise win in the Grade I Prioress with Emma’s Encore.

Another weekend upset provided wonderful moment for a Churchill Downs-based trainer Ian Wilkes, who picked up one of the biggest victories of his career when he saddled Janis Whitham’s Fort Larned to win the $750,000 Whitney Stakes, a Grade I race for older horses that is among the most prestigious races offered each year at Saratoga.

The four-year-old Fort Larned avenged a defeat to runner-up Ron the Greek in June’s Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. The son of E Dubai finished last of eight that day, but was roughed up leaving the starting gate and never recovered from the trouble.

He got a new jockey in his next outing in Brian Hernandez Jr., who guided Fort Larned to a frontrunning victory in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker in his next start and turned in a flawless ride in the Whitney. He opened a big lead in mid-stretch and Hernandez brought Fort Larned home under a confident hand ride.

The victory earned Fort Larned an automatic berth in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, along with some travelling money for the November trip to California’s Santa Anita. It also put Wilkes’ colt near the top of a wide-open group of older horses, headed by Ron the Greek, Hollywood Gold Cup winner, 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Game On Dude and Wisel Dan, the runner-up and beaten favorite in the Stephen Foster Handicap.

Wilkes’ star now has four wins in seven races this year and seven victories in 17 lifetime races. He is bearing down on millionaire status as his $450,000 first prize in the Whitney pushed his career earnings of $881,236.

Trainer Ian Wilkes.

Trainer Ian Wilkes.

Fort Larned came out of the race well and Wilkes affirmed that the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the major 2012 goal for his rising star.

“He’s happy, although not as happy as I am,” Wilkes said. “Really, I was expecting that kind of performance from him. I believe in him. He’s a very good horse. He ran the same type of race in the Cornhusker. In that race, he beat Successful Dan; yesterday, there were more good horses.”

Fort Larned had lost to Successful Dan, a talented Charles Lopresti-trained stablemate to Wise Dan, in the Alysheba at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day, but turned the tables on that rival in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows. That setback, in which he lost by just a length, and the Foster are his only losses in his last four races.

Wilkes, a native of Australia, was best-known for years as the top assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger, who saddled Unbridled and Street Sense to win the Kentucky Derby. Since going out on his own in 2006 he has continued to work closely with Nafzger and the two share barns and training facilities wherever they go.

He has settled in Louisville with his wife, Tracey, and their two children. Tracey Wilkes is an exercise rider who works many of Wilkes’ top horses in the mornings, while working as a guest service supervisor in the afternoons during live racing meets at Churchill Downs.

The Wilkeses and Nafzger and his wife, Wanda, have shared many wonderful moments during their more than two decades of partnership. And Fort Larned could provide several more vivid memories.

His immediate schedule could include a run in the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga on Sept. 11, but Ian Wilkes continues to work on that plan.

“We have to think about how to get to the Classic and work backwards,” he said. “The main thing is, he’ll tell me. He’s been going since early in the year. We’ll see how he is, and he will tell us.”

The victory by Fort Larned joined Grade I triumphs on Wilkes’ resume by Warrior’s Reward in the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct and Capt. Candyman Can in the 2009 King’s Bishop at Saratoga.

He’d like to add a couple more before the end of the year – with that race at Santa Anita on the first weekend in November being the obvious target.

In terms of personal achievement, the victory was even bigger for Hernandez, a Louisiana native who enjoyed his first success in Grade I company in the Whitney.

Hernandez has long been a steady rider just below the radar at Churchill Downs, but was quietly excellent in the recent Spring Meet. He won 24 races and finished sixth behind runaway win leader Corey Lanerie.

One of the nicest people in Kentucky racing, Hernandez’s victory at Saratoga produced a lot of smiles from those who know him and have worked with him in the Bluegrass State. The son of a jockey, easy-going Hernandez is known for his strong work ethic during morning training hours and always strong effort during races in the afternoon.

Still only 26, the career of Hernandez is moving in the right direction and his victory aboard Ford Larned figures to help him gain momentum.

“I don’t think it’s set in yet,” Hernandez said after the Whitney. “It’s still kind of surreal being at Saratoga and wining a Grade I. This is definitely the biggest. This tops them all.”

Hours after his most exciting moment, Hernandez was back at Henderson, Ky.’s Ellis Park, where he is riding this summer. He could manage only a runner-up finish from Sunday afternoon’s work, but that’s OK.

The Whitney victory and the potential for bigger things from Fort Larned will have Hernandez smiling for quite a while.

Photos by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs