Trainer Ian Wilkes found the atmosphere in the winner’s circle Wednesday at Tampa Bay Downs a bit more subdued than the highly-charged scene at Santa Anita on Nov. 3.
But Wilkes is thankful for every opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of his runners, from Fort Larned in the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic to claiming and allowance horses such as his three winners Wednesday: Carolina Cruisin’, Forever Vow and Nicklaus Way.
“I’m only as fortunate as the horses I get in my barn, and I’ve got some very good owners,” said Wilkes, who has been selected the Zerillo’s Trainer of the Month after sending out six recent winners and going 3-for-3 Wednesday.
“I can’t express how gratifying it is to me to have these kind of owners.”
The best known of Wilkes’ owners, of course, is Janis R. Whitham, who owns and bred Fort Larned.
But Wilkes gets the same satisfaction winning races for such lesser-known backers as Randall L. Bloch, John Seiler and David Hall – the joint owners of 3-year-old filly Carolina Cruisin’ – and Robert Lothenbach’s Lothenbach Stables, Inc., the owner of both 6-year-old mare Forever Vow and 4-year-old gelding Nicklaus Way.
Carolina Cruisin’ and turf winner Forever Vow were ridden to victory by Ronnie Allen, Jr., while Jose L. Espinoza had the mount on Nicklaus Way. For the record, Carolina Cruisin’ was claimed out of her victory for $12,500 for new owner RandB Thoroughbreds, LLC by trainer Michael Dini.
“My owners are really tremendous, and it all stems from the program Carl Nafzger set up originally,” Wilkes said of his mentor, who hired the New South Wales, Australia native to work for him in 1989 – a year before Nafzger won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic with Unbridled.
Wilkes, who grew up working on a dairy farm in Muswellbrook, New South Wales,
galloped Unbridled leading up to his big victories before returning to Australia for three years.
He came back to the United States to stay in 1993 as Nafzger’s top assistant, and played a key role in the development of Nafzger’s second Kentucky Derby winner in 2007, Street Sense (who also won the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby).
By that time, Nafzger had made plans to turn most of his stock over to Wilkes, who has done nothing to diminish the wisdom of Nafzger’s decision.
How has life changed for Wilkes since winning the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned? Other than raising his profile among the racing public, hardly at all.
“I still get out of bed the same way. I still put my shoes on the same way,” said Wilkes. “Everything is still the same.”
Everything, including Wilkes’ regard for Tampa Bay Downs as a place to develop up-and-coming Thoroughbreds. Fort Larned’s 4-year-old campaign last year began at Tampa Bay Downs, where he finished fourth in a mile-and-a-sixteenth handicap before winning the $60,000 Challenger Stakes on March 3.
That victory was pivotal in Fort Larned’s later success, as the colt won the Grade III Skip Away at Gulfstream; the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker; the Grade I Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga; and, ultimately, the $5-million Classic at Santa Anita for Wilkes, Whitham and jockey Brian Hernandez.
“That (the Challenger) was a very instrumental race, because if he got beat here, I wouldn’t have taken a shot in the Skip Away” (in which Fort Larned set a mile-and-three-sixteenths track record of 1:53.92), Wilkes said. “The Challenger was a very important part of his program, to get him going. I was very fortunate for him to win here. That really kicked off his year.
“Tampa works into my program as a good niche. It helps in developing horses. I have 16 stalls here, and I’m very pleased,” said Wilkes, who also races at Gulfstream during the winter. “It’s a kind surface and my horses do well here.”
The 47-year-old Wilkes trains from his base at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach. He gets to Tampa Bay Downs about once a week, entrusting assistant Peggy Dunleavy with running the Oldsmar operation.
“It’s all about the team,” said Wilkes. “I can’t do it all myself, so if I don’t have good people around helping me, I’m no good. Peggy does a very good job running this outfit.”
Wilkes is pointing now-5-year-old Fort Larned toward the Grade II, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 9 for his 2013 debut. “I’m pleased and happy Mrs. Whitham wants to run him again this year. That makes us all happy,” he said. “She is a true sportswoman.”
He is also pointing a pair of fillies to the $50,000 Manatee Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 9: Marylou Whitney Stables LLC’s 4-year-old Cheechako, victorious here Jan. 12 in an allowance/optional claiming event; and the Janis R. Whitham-owned 4-year-old Magic Hour, whose two victories came last season at Hoosier Park.
Owner Joyce Kielty’s dependable 8-year-old Hold On Smokey remains in top form. Only 18 days after he finished third to Great Attack in the $75,000 Turf Dash Stakes, the Florida-bred son of Concorde’s Tune powered through the stretch Wednesday to win a five-furlong starter allowance on the turf by a length from Thegames a Bustout.
Hold On Smokey’s time of 54.99 seconds was .07 seconds off the 2012 track record of Jr’s Exchange. Trained by Carlos Garcia and ridden by Victor Santiago, Hold On Smokey paid $4 as the wagering favorite.
In the second race, an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming event for 3-year-olds going five-and-a-half furlongs, gelding Pyrite Green rewarded trainer Miguel Feliciano with his first victory of the meet, drawing away from 7-10 favorite Rockyshomerun by two lengths.
Pyrite Green, who won for the third time in only seven starts, was ridden by Ricardo Feliciano, the conditioner’s nephew. The Ohio-bred son of Seattle Fitz is owned by Pyrite Stables. He paid $28 as the second-longest shot in the race.
Jockey Angel Serpa rode a single winner on Wednesday’s card, giving him 31 for the meet, one behind leader Daniel Centeno. Serpa was aboard 4-year-old colt Turbo Cannon in the seventh race for owner Frank Carl Calabrese and trainer Rick Slomkowski.
Live racing resumes Thursday with a first-race post time of 12:38 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.