Janis Whitham's homebred Fort Larned, who has not started since his gutsy victory in the Nov. 3 Breeders' Cup Classic, will face just five opponents when he makes his 5-year-old debut March 9 in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap.
The 5-year-old son of E Dubai -- Arlucea, by Broad Brush, will carry top weight of 124 pounds while conceeding six to 12 to other horses in the one mile handicap. The weight concession certainly is appropriate, considering the class edge Fort Larned has over his opponents.
In addition to winning the Classic at Santa Anita Park, Fort Larned also captured the Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga Race Course, Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows, the Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream, and Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs for trainer Ian Wilkes. Regular rider Brian Hernandez Jr. will be in the saddle from post 3.
"He had a nice, easy five-furlong breeze (in 1:01 1/5) Monday (March 4)," Wilkes said. "He's doing fine and he's ready to go."
The imposing runner's biggest threat could come from second highweight Fort Loudon, a hard-knocking 4-year-old trained by Nick Zito and owned by Jacks or Better Farm. He comes off a game victory in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship. The son of Awesome of Course captured three stakes at Calder Casino & Race Course last year, including the Carry Back Stakes, and finished second to Willy Beamin in the King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga.
The always dangerous Todd Pletcher will send out E. Paul Robsham Stables' Discreet Dancer, who was a hot commodity on the Derby trail last year when winning his first two starts in brilliant fashion.
He generated high expectations in his very first start when he won by nearly10 lengths, running the 51/2 furlongs in the track-record time of 1:02.34.
"Watching him train, we felt he was one who would run well in his first start. He did and set a track record. He came back and won impressively the second time," Pletcher said.
Following a disappointing third in the Fountain of Youth, Discreet Dancer came down with an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. In his first race back this season, he scored a narrow victory in a six-furlong optional claimer, earning a 98 Beyer speed figure -- but that still is a long way off Fort Larned's 117 Beyer in the Classic and 110 in the Whitney.
The son of Discreet Cat will carry 115 pounds, pulling nine pounds from Fort Larned, with Javier Castellano aboard from post two.
"It's hard to quantify those things," Pletcher said. "It's a substantial concession that we're getting, but by the same token, we're running a lightly raced horse against a Breeders' Cup Classic winner. Considering the length of the layoff and we were meeting some seasoned horses, I thought he showed a lot of determination and substantiated his form as a 3-year-old. We were really, really pleased with his effort."
Pletcher added: "I think the mile will suit him well. I felt like in the race at six [furlongs] we had to rush him a little more than he really wanted to be, so I would think stretching out would help. But we're also stretching out into a pretty tough race. I think this race will tell us a lot about where we are in terms of quality and the distance he wants to run. He's always trained like a graded-stakes horse for us, so hopefully bigger things will come, but I'm not 100 percent sure what distance it'll end up being."
One horse in excellent form is Silverton Hill's Swagger Jack, who closed well to finish second to Fort Loudon in the Gulfstream Sprint Championship. Prior to that, the son of Smart Strike scored back-to-back victories in optional claimer events going one mile at Gulfstream. Trained by Marty Wolfson, he will be ridden by Luis Saez and will carry 117 pounds from the far outside.
Gourmet Dinner, second in the Fountain of Youth back in 2011, managed only a victory in Majestic Light Stakes last year at Monmouth Park in eight starts. In his last try, he was seventh of nine in the seven-furlong Super Stakes at Tampa Bay.
The Rose Family Stable normally has a horse in these big races, and they round out the field with Decaf Again, who has managed two well-beaten thirds in his 20 starts in 2012 and 2013. With 82 career starts, he's already run six times this year -- and you needed a telescope to find him each time.