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Fort Larned withstands a siege in Breeders' Cup Classic

Piloted by Brian Hernandez Jr., the horse fends off a charge by Mucho Macho Man to win the $5-million race and put owner Janis Whitham in the spotlight.

November 03, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Brian Hernandez Jr. rides Fort Larned (#4) during the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Brian Hernandez Jr. rides Fort Larned (#4) during the Breeders' Cup… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

Game On Dude didn't quite have enough game. Mucho Macho Man had insufficient macho.

And so Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic, a Hollywood show taking place before 55,123 well-dressed and well-entertained people at a horse track long established in star-studded Los Angeles as the Great Race Place, got its best moment via a wonderful little old lady from Kansas.

Janis Whitham's Fort Larned won the Classic, the $3 million that comes with that, and the affection of thousands of new race fans.

Fort Larned seemed to be one of the other horses filling a race field expected to be dominated by celebrity horse Game On Dude, owned in part by celebrity baseball legend Joe Torre and prepared by celebrity trainer Bob Baffert. Game On Dude took a run at the front going into the second turn. Fort Larned had jumped on the lead and never relinquished it. Mucho Macho Man, with jockey Mike Smith putting trainer Kathy Ritvo's horse in perfect position on Fort Larned's shoulder, had been there for most of the race too.

Game On Dude and jockey Rafael Bejarano moved and so did Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man. But the expected charge became an unexpected fade.

"Once neither of us let him past," Smith said, "it took a lot out of him."

Next came Mucho Macho Man's charge. But Fort Larned, with what could be perceived as Midwestern stubbornness, refused to yield. Suddenly, the stunned crowd was looking at a tote board that showed gamblers' win-place-show prices of $20.80, $9.80 and $6.80.

The moment they crossed the finish line, Smith, beaten by half a length, turned to Fort Larned jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. and congratulated him. Smith was so impressed with both the winner's race and his own horse's effort that he said afterward, "We won the race. We just didn't finish first."

Overshadowed in the winners' circle swarm that included singing star Tony Bennett and Gov. Jerry Brown was a key person in the $5-million race. That just made the story of Janis Whitham, juxtaposed against the noise and Hollywood razzle-dazzle, even better.

She is 80, a fourth-generation descendant of Midwest pioneers. She lives in Leoti, Kan., population about 1,300. She has bred and raced horses for many years and did so with her husband, Frank, a cattleman and rancher. He died in the crash of a small plane in 1993. That was a few years after their previous Breeders' Cup splash. Their horse was the famed Bayakoa, who won the 1989 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic and then repeated in 1990, in the horrifying stretch run against Go For Wand, who broke down and had to be euthanized.

Bayakoa, trained by Ron McAnally, had a filly named Arlucea, Fort Larned's mother.

Saturday, Janis Whitham was back in the spotlight and hesitant to be there. She asked that her sons, Clay and Barth, sit with her at the table for the news conference to make her more comfortable. When you are 80, newspaper people can be scary. Also when you are 30.

She let the others take credit.

Her trainer, Ian Wilkes, who learned under the expert eye of Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger and gave him credit for much of this success, said, "When you have a horse that keeps getting better and better, it makes my job easier."

Her jockey, Hernandez, talked about "the greatest birthday ever." He turned 27 on Saturday.

He also was coaxed into talking about a close call that could have kept him out of this race.

"I was taking a leg up Thursday at Churchill Downs," he said. "I slipped and tried to clear away, but the horse kicked me [in the rear end]. It hurt, but I got back on him and rode the race. I actually had 10 rides that day."

Hernandez also said he saw Smith's charge, but wasn't worried.

"My horse wasn't going to let him past," he said.

But Janis Whitham wasn't allowed to stay silent forever. She told the group that the horse was named after a fort, near the western Kansas town of Larned, population about 5,000. The fort was built in 1859, and served as protection for the Santa Fe Trail, at the meeting of the Pawnee Creek and the Arkansas River. The protection from Indian attacks kept annual commerce along that trail going at an estimated $130,000 a year, or $4.87 million less than the worth of the race Whitham won Saturday.

"Fort Larned has a half-brother named after an old fort north of us," she said. "That's Fort Wallace."

Whitham won on an eventful Breeders' Cup day.

Baffert, with Game On Dude's loss, went a startling 0 for 9 with his entries over the two days of racing. His terrible luck included having to scratch a horse that flipped in its stall.

Smith extended his Breeders' Cup riding record to 17, when he won aboard Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint. Mizdirection is owned by broadcast personality Jim Rome, whose horse had been bet down from its 20-1 morning line to 5-1.

"I love my clones [his audience]," he said, "but I don't think they did that. They don't roll that way."

Rosie Napravnik joined Julie Krone as the only female jockeys to win a Breeders' Cup race. Trainer Doug O'Neill got a hint of another Triple Crown go-around, which he had this year with I'll Have Another. His horse lost a tight battle in the Juvenile to favored Shanghai Bobby and is perfectly named by owner and couch cookie-eater J. Paul Reddam, or maybe by Reddam's wife: He's Had Enough.

Whitham, shy or not, certainly hasn't had enough. Asked about prospects for 2013, when she will be 81, she said, "We'll try to do this again."

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