Ronnie Allen, Jr., could sense the power beneath him when he mounted Fort Larned in the paddock last March for the $60,000 Challenger Stakes.
The 4-year-old colt was coming off a mediocre fourth-place allowance effort a month earlier at Tampa Bay Downs under jockey Julien Leparoux. With Leparoux honoring another engagement elsewhere, trainer Ian Wilkes summoned the veteran Allen to ride Fort Larned.
“He suggested I get into him a little bit early and get him on the bit, and he was right,” recalled Allen, who rode Fort Larned to a length-and-a-quarter Challenger victory from Wiki, the 7-10 favorite. “I remember taking him by myself to warm him up and get him on the bit, get his blood pumping a little bit more, so I could get him out of the gate well, and it worked.
“From then on, it’s history,” Allen added. “He kept on winning and winning and winning.”
Allen gets another chance at a Challenger victory on a Wilkes-trained runner Saturday when he rides 4-year-old Meowser, part of a Lothenbach Stables, Inc., entry with Nicklaus Way. Six other horses are entered in the Challenger, including 4-year-old Prospective, the Mark Casse-trained winner of the 2012 Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.
The Challenger, run at a distance of a mile-and-a-sixteenth, is the eighth race on an 11-race card that begins at 12:40 p.m. The Challenger has produced the past two Breeders’ Cup Classic champions (William Mott-trained Drosselmeyer finished fourth in the 2011 Challenger, won by Colizeo).
The Challenger was the only race in which Allen rode Fort Larned, the Janis R. Whitham-owned homebred who capped 2012 with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. Following the Challenger, Fort Larned also won the Grade III Skip Away at Gulfstream, setting a track record for a mile-and-three-sixteenths; the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker in Iowa; and the Grade I Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga before his Classic triumph.
Wilkes said the Challenger “was a very instrumental race” in Fort Larned’s development. “It was a very important part of his program, to get him going. (Tampa Bay Downs) helps in developing horses. It’s a kind surface and my horses do well.”
“Fort Larned was just much the best in that race,” said Allen, who kept him within two lengths of pace-setter I’m Steppin’ It Up for the first half-mile before launching a swift and decisive bid. Watch Me Go, the 2011 Tampa Bay Derby winner, finished fourth.
“He needed an aggressive rider, and I think I was a little bit more aggressive than Julien. I got him in gear and he just went on with it,” Allen said. “Some horses are like that – they need a rider to get after them. It picks them up and makes them run to their ability.”
Meowser, a Kentucky-bred son of Discreet Cat-Kittery Point, by Include, is perhaps the less well-regarded half of the Wilkes entry, with his two victories from eight career starts coming as a 3-year-old at Ellis Park and Hoosier Park.
Allen has been aboard Meowser for his two local starts, both second-place finishes going around two turns. Meowser finished third behind Challenger entrant Thank U Philippe and Duty Blues going a mile-and-40-yards four weeks ago and was moved up to second via a disqualification (the incident did not affect Meowser during the race).
“I think Meowser could have won that race, but we were stuck on the rail with no place to go,” Allen said. “He is like Fort Larned in that they both are big, good-looking horses that like to go a distance. With a little bit of racing luck, I think he is going to be right there.
“I’m going to try to stick with him if he has some success.”
Prospective, who will be making his 4-year-old debut, is the morning-line favorite at 9-5. Owned by John C. Oxley, he will be ridden by Fernando De La Cruz, the hottest jockey at Tampa Bay Downs in February. Prospective will carry top weight of 124 pounds.
Following his Tampa Bay Derby victory last season, Prospective was sixth in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass and 18th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. He then won the Victoria Park Stakes at Woodbine and Grade III Ohio Derby at Thistledown back-to-back and finished 2012 with a victory in the Delta Mile Stakes in Louisiana.
The full field for the Challenger in post position order, with trainers and jockeys:
1. Shellback, Gerald Bennett, Danny Coa; 2. Argentine Tango, Stanley Gold, Fernando Jara; 3. Nicklaus Way, Ian Wilkes, Angel Serpa; 4. Thank U Philippe, Martin D. Wolfson, Daniel Centeno; 5. Flatter This, Kathleen O’Connell, Antonio Gallardo; 6. Th Original Scotty, Yvon Belsoeur, Ricardo Feliciano; 7. Prospective, Mark Casse, Fernando De La Cruz; 8. Meowser, Ian Wilkes, Ronnie Allen, Jr.
Fernando De La Cruz’s winning ways in the saddle coincide neatly with the Feb. 4 birth of his daughter, Norma. He and wife Rosa also have a son, Brian.
De La Cruz rode three winners Thursday, the third time in February he rode three or more. He had three winners Feb. 14 and four winners Feb. 16. De La Cruz has ridden 22 winners in the 17 days since Norma was born. He is suddenly a contender in the jockey standings with 44 victories, behind only Angel Serpa with 52 and four-time track champion Daniel Centeno with 50.
De La Cruz won the second race, a six-furlong claiming event, with 5-year-old horse Follow the Rhythm for owner-trainer Jason DaCosta. He returned to the winner’s circle after the third, a seven-furlong claiming race, on 5-year-old gelding Professorplumdidit for owner Cindy Patrick and trainer R. Gary Patrick.
In the seventh race, a mile allowance/optional claiming race on the turf, De La Cruz tallied on 7-year-old gelding Allie’s Event for owner-trainer Lori Smock.
Danny Coa also rode two winners Thursday. In the fourth race, a seven-furlong claiming event, he guided 4-year-old gelding Ready for Ray to victory for owners Winning Stables, Inc. and Ray Rech and trainer Gerald Bennett. Coa then took the fifth, a mile-and-a-sixteenth claiming race on the turf, on 7-year-old mare Fur Lined for owner William M. Backer and trainer Jonathan Sheppard.
Sheppard sent out an additional winner in the ninth, a maiden special weight at a mile on the turf, in 5-year-old mare Why Not More, owned by William Pape. Scott Spieth was in the irons. The Pick-5 jackpot was hit, each winning ticket-holder collecting $3,012.30 (2-1-2-4-2).
A pair of 3-year-old Triple Crown nominees ran 1-2 in the sixth race, an allowance/optional claiming contest at a mile-and-40-yards. Both are sons of 2005 TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Silver Train.
Balance of Power rallied on the far turn and rolled to a length-and-a-half victory from Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes participant Silver Day in 1:42.45. The winner, owned by James Covello, is trained by John Terranova II and was ridden by Jose Espinoza. Those are the same connections of Davis winner Falling Sky (Covello is a part-owner of Falling Sky).
Friday’s 10-race card begins at 12:30 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.