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Oaklawn Barn Notes
Oaklawn Barn Notes

Breeders’ Cup Classic Champion Fort Larned Readies For Saturday’s Oaklawn Handicap


After arriving on the charter flight from Florida on Monday, Fort Larned was out on the Oaklawn strip on Tuesday morning under regular exercise rider Kate Merritt and the defending Breeders’ Cup Classic champion acclimated well as he prepares for the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) on Saturday.


“He went out to stretch his legs and everything is good. He took to the track real good and he got over it fine,” said trainer Ian Wilkes. “He’s doing very well and I’m very pleased with him.”


In his first start back from his Breeders’ Cup triumph, Fort Larned stumbled at the start of the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) and unseated regular rider Brian Hernandez, Jr., who was unhurt. Fort Larned and his jockey have won three graded stakes together and they will be reunited on Saturday.


“Brian fits this horse beautifully,” said Wilkes, who is making his first trip back to Oaklawn in almost a decade. “He’s a very good rider.”


With inclement weather forecast for Wednesday and off track conditions possible in the morning, Wilkes was unsure of the remaining schedule for the 5-year-old son of E Dubai, who is a grandson of 1989 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) winner Bayakoa.


“I want to watch how he does today so I don’t know if I’ll send him back to the track to stretch his legs again tomorrow. I want to watch and wait and see,” said Wilkes. “It’s the little things I look for, like if he eats up today. But he’s ready.”


Fort Larned will take on an expected field of eight other top handicap horses aged 4 and older, including defending Oaklawn Handicap champion Alternation.


Trainer Donnie Von Hemel sent the Pin Oak Stud homebred out after the break and the 5-year-old son of Distorted Humor and grandson of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew breezed 4 furlongs in 49.60 in his final tune-up.


“I was happy with the way he went. It was nice and even and afterward, he wouldn’t even blow out a match,” he said.


Alterntion, who strung together a four stakes race win streak that also included the $100,000 Essex Handicap and the $125,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) here last year, was given a 75 day layoff after winning seven of five starts in 2012. In his first and only start this year, he didn’t fire in the Razorback and was fifth in the race won by Oaklawn president Charles Cella’s Cyber Secret, whom he will face again in the Oaklawn Handicap.


“You should see a better race from him than last time out,” Von Hemel predicted.


The field for the Oaklawn Handicap will be drawn on Wednesday, along with the field for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), at 12:30 PM.


Falling Sky Has His Connections Sky High


James Covello, who owns Falling Sky as part of a partnership including Joseph Bulger, is bringing his wife and three children to Oaklawn for Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) and he’s already contracted an acute case of Derby Fever.


“This is incredibly exciting. I’m not sleeping well and I can’t wait until Saturday,” said Covello, who participated in a national teleconference on Tuesday in advance of the prestigious prep race for the Kentucky Derby. “I’ve had graded stakes horses before, but I’ve never had one with a chance to run in the Derby. This is something that all of the horse’s connections are excited about and we’re going to soak up every minute of it.”


The partnership purchased the son of Lion Heart and the grandson of 1993 Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero privately this year for $425,000 in advance of his win in the $100,000 Sam Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 2. His bloodstock agent/racing manager got a tip that the colt would be entered in the Ocala Breeders’ Sale Company winter sale and he and trainer John Terranova were already high on the way the horse was training and his past performances.


“Obviously we paid a premium for the fact that the horse is already a proven commodity,” said Covello, who is an analyst with Goldman Sachs. “The reason we were able to buy him and he didn’t cost more than he did was that he was unproven at two turns.”


Falling Sky will be asked to run farther than ever before in the 1 1/8 mile Arkansas Derby but his pedigree suggests the extra distance will suit him. He’ll also pick up the services of new jockey Martin Garcia, who replaces Jose Espinoza, and is based in Southern California.


Garcia will also be aboard Balance of Power, who is owned by Covello and trained by Terranova as well, on the Derby day undercard in the $100,000 Northern Spur Stakes. He and Falling Sky are scheduled to be on the grounds on Wednesday.


In other Derby news, Mike Repole’s Overanalyze arrived safely on the same flight from Florida with a contingent of runners for the week long Racing Festival of the South and Rafael Bejarano has been named to ride the colt on Saturday. Bejarano takes over for John Velasquez, who was injured in a spill last Sunday and reportedly be will be sidelined for three weeks, and he will also pilot Atigun in the Oaklawn Handicap.


“Overanalyze is feeling really good,” said Ginny DePasquale, the assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher who accompanied the $250,000 Remsen Stakes (G2) winner. “He galloped 1 ¼ miles this morning and he was on his toes. I think he’s coming up to the race in really good shape.”


Highly touted as a juvenile, Overanalyze has taken a back seat to a pair of his stable mates so far in their sophomore season. Verrazano, the undefeated winner of the Wood Memorial (G1) and Louisiana Derby (G2) victor Revolutionary currently rank #2 and #4, respectively, in the new points standings system required to get into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. Overanalyze, currently with 10 points, could vault up the ladder with 100, 40 or 20 points earned for a top three finish in the Arkansas Derby, the second leg of the Championship Series.


“He probably has been a little overshadowed by Verrazano and Revolutionary)”, said DePasquale, who has worked for Pletcher for 16 years. “This is his time to shine.”


The locally-based Texas Bling, who finished fourth here his last time out in the Rebel Stakes (G2) behind fellow Arkansas Derby possibles Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Den’s Legacy, breezed three furlongs in 36 seconds flat over his home track on Tuesday morning and his conditioner is eagerly anticipating the rematch.


“He’s doing excellent,” Danele Durham said of the Texas-bred son of Too Much Bling. “He had an excellent work this morning at 7 o’clock under Calvin (Borel), who worked him just a couple of days ago. He’s on his toes and his stride keeps getting better and better. Borel was thrilled with him. His work was better than last time and we’re looking forward to Saturday.”


On April 3, the improving Texas Bling traveled five furlongs in 1:01.6 for the sixth fastest of 31 horses working at the distance.


“I think he’s more than held together,” said Durham “He’s training excellently. He’s thrived here in Hot Springs. He likes it here and seems to be in the best health he’s ever been in.”


In his other two races at the current meet, the dark bay colt was beaten only a neck by Will Take Charge in the $150,000 Smarty Jones on January 21 but, then clearly didn’t care for the sloppy track he caught on February 18 in the Southwest Stakes (G3), when he faded to ninth, 21 ¼ lengths behind Super Ninety Nine.


Apple Blossom High Weight Grace Hall’s Connections Thrilled She’s Back in the Fold


When  Grace Hall, who will carry top weight of 118 pounds in Friday’s $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1), was led back to the barn after her solid fourth place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (G1) last fall, trainer Tony Dutrow and assistant/exercise rider Carol Fisher were heart-broken because they knew it was their last go-round together. The owners of the multiple graded stakes-winning were flying her to Kentucky to be entered in the Fasig-Tipton November Sale 48 hours later.


She sold for $3.2 million as a broodmare prospect and was to be retired from racing. But then new owner John Clay of Alpha Delta Stables decided she would instead be kept in training, and even better, he returned her to Dutrow. For the entire barn, it was a miracle come to pass.


“It was amazing. I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Fisher, who has been aboard for every one of the filly’s work outs and traveled with her across the country for all of her 12 previous starts. “It was so hard for all of us on the day she left. Kim (Dutrow’s wife) and I flew with her on the plane and by the time we checked in to the hotel and went back to check on her, she was already being shown to buyers. We went to the sale that night and when we heard that John was the one who bought her, we were so happy. Tony had already trained some horses for him, and we hoped that he would send her back. And he did.”


Now 4 years old, the daughter of Empire Maker is better than ever. She comes in to the Apple Blossom fresh from a third place finish in the $100,000 Sabin Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park Feb. 17.


“In just the last month, she has gained so much muscle weight,” Fisher said she galloped the filly 1 1/8 miles on Tuesday morning. “I thought she looked good before and she’s always had a shiny coat, but now she’s all dappled out and looks the best I have ever seen her look. In her last two (bullet) works at Palm Meadows, she gave me that special feeling when I was on her. Her ears were up, she was on the muscle, and she was happy to do it. The trip here took nothing out of her.”


Grace Hall, named for the wrestling arena at Lehigh University, will be ridden by Joel Rosario in the Apple Blossom. She will break from post two, just to the outside of Tiz Miz Sue, the back-to-back winner of the $150,000 Azeri Stakes (G3) here.