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Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

ARCADIA, Calif. – The 29th Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) was supposed to go to one of the big names in the game.

Game On Dude, who had never lost in five previous starts at Santa Anita Park, went off as an understandable 6-5 favorite for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, trainer of three Kentucky Derby (G1) victors and the winners of nine Triple Crown races in all. If Game On Dude did not deliver, many analysts looked for any of Hall of Famer Bill Mott’s three classy starters — Ron the Greek, Flat Out or To Honor and Serve — to fill the void.

Last year, Mott joined John Shirreffs (2009) as the only trainers to sweep the Ladies’ Classic (G1) and the Classic in the same season. And he already had the Ladies’ Classic in his pocket this time around when Royal Delta successfully defended her title on Friday.

But this edition did not go to the rich and famous. It went to a longshot coming off a major disappointment, a trainer best known for his work as an understudy and a fresh-faced young jockey who had never ridden at Santa Anita before.

It went to Fort Larned, largely dismissed after he showed little in finishing third in his previous start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (G1) at the end of September at Belmont Park. It went to Ian Wilkes, who learned from masterful Carl Nafzger what it is to have a horse primed for a big day. And it went to Brian Hernandez Jr., who did not let his unfamiliarity with the track beneath the San Gabriel Mountains keep him from stealing the show there on his 27th birthday.

“It’s always nice to fly under the radar and not have a bulls-eye on your back. That always helps,” Wilkes said after Fort Larned barely withstood the hot pursuit of Mucho Macho Man by half a length and returned $20.80 for a $2 win wager. Flat Out and Ron the Greek never threatened in third and fourth. Game On Dude started poorly on a track that favored speed and was no better than seventh.

Hernandez had been as inconspicuous figure as there could be in the sport. He said a horse booted him in the backside soon after he arrived to view the Santa Anita backstretch. He never imagined he would ultimately end up kicking butt.

“This is definitely career-altering,” he said. “If someone told me in May that I’d be riding in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, much less winning it, I would have told him he was crazy.”

Yet Fort Larned and Hernandez have formed a dynamic duo since they were united for the Cornhusker Handicap (G3) at the end of June and immediately clicked for a three-length victory accomplished on the front end. They stepped up to the Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1) and stormed home first by a length and a quarter, leaving behind runner-up Ron the Greek and third-place Flat Out for what was Wilkes’ most significant victory to that point. Then came a third-place disappointment in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but that, after all, was not Wilkes’ target. And he had learned from Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger how important it is to keep an unwavering eye on one date.

“When you really focus on one race, he was a master at doing that,” Wilkes said. “I’m glad it worked out [Saturday] because I can tell him I did it.”

For an Equibase chart, click here.



Photo Courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

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