Saturday's $5 million Classic delivered a fitting conclusion to the Breeders' Cup World Championships, with an exciting battle to the finish line between two of Thoroughbred racing's best, Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man. In the end, Fort Larned denied his rival by a half-length.
"I had the right horse," trainer Ian Wilkes said. "This is the ultimate."
Legendary singer Tony Bennett set the stage, singing "The Best is Yet to Come" as the Classic horses came onto the track. And the crowd of 55,123 at Santa Anita roared as the race materialized into a two-horse affair in the latter stages.
Brian Hernandez Jr. celebrated his 27th birthday in style, garnering his first Breeders' Cup victory with a clever ride. Despite the presence of several speedy types in the 12-horse field, Hernandez grabbed the mantle at the start, opening up a short lead during the opening stages of the 1 ¬-mile race.
Mucho Macho Man tracked the pacesetter in second and began to crank up his run approaching the conclusion of the far turn, erasing a short deficit to almost draw even as they reached the top of the stretch. The runner-up had every opportunity to get past on the outside, but Fort Larned displayed tremendous resiliency, digging in gamely to stave off his classy challenger.
"It's the greatest birthday ever," Hernandez exclaimed. "Ian (Wilkes) and I talked about the race, and he told me don't take him out of his game and let him do whatever he wants. He has a good cruising speed, and I just let him go."
"I knew we were good when he broke sharp. That's where Brian (Hernandez) won the race," Wilkes said. "I trust Brian because the horse trusts Brian."
Mike Smith, who became the all-time winningest jockey in Breeders' Cup history on Friday, came up just short in his attempt to win back-to-back Classics after capturing the 2011 edition aboard Drosselmeyer.
"He just ran big," Smith said of the runner-up.
"What can you do? He ran a winning race," trainer Kathy Ritvo said of Mucho Macho Man. "The other horse (Fort Larned) was a great horse today."
It was a 6 «-length gap back to third-placer Flat Out, who was followed by Ron the Greek, Richard's Kid and Nonios under the wire. Game on Dude wound up a disappointing seventh as the 6-5 favorite, losing any chance for Horse of the Year honors. Pool Play, Handsome Mike, To Honor and Serve, Brilliant Speed and Alpha completed the order of finish.
Fort Larned established opening splits in :23.20, :46.50, 1:10.12 and 1:34.66 before stopping the teletimer in an excellent 2:00.11.
Fort Larned proved he belonged in the upper echelon this summer, recording a convincing victory in the prestigious Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, and entered the Classic off a respectable third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. With the $2.7 million Classic payday, the 4-year-old son of E Dubai has now earned $3,694,658 from a 19-8-2-1 mark.