The return of Breeders’ Cup champion Fort Larned ended with a scare, but fortunately no injuries, on Saturday when he fell and unseated jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. leaving the gate in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap.
With Fort Larned out, Discreet Dancer took the lead after a half mile and pulled away to beat Swagger Jack by 5 1/2 lengths in the one-mile Grade 2 stakes on dirt. Fort Loudon finished third, another 1 1/4 lengths back.
Fort Larned regained his footing, passed the other five horses and crossed the finish line about 10 lengths ahead of Discreet Dancer.
Because Fort Larned was riderless, he was not officially part of the race. No bets on Fort Larned were refunded.
The Gulfstream Park Handicap was the first race for Fort Larned since last Nov. 3 when, with Hernandez riding, he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
“The second jump out of the gate he stumbled really bad and fell on his face,” Hernandez said after Saturday’s race. “It’s really weird because he warmed up better [Saturday] than he did before the [Breeders’ Cup] Classic. He was really on his toes. He did everything right until that moment.”
Fans in the estimated Gulfstream crowd of 6,200 gasped when Fort Larned stumbled. Some booed, obviously disappointed that their bets on the 4-5 favorite were lost.
“He grabbed his left front right in the middle of the heel,” said Ian Wilkes, the trainer of Fort Larned. “His second jump he just overreached and stumbled. This was the first time anything like this has happened. It’ll take a few days to make sure he’s OK because he fell on his head.”
The Gulfstream Park Handicap was Fort Larned’s first race at Gulfstream since last March 31, when he won the Skip Away Stakes and set a track record for 1 3/16 miles. It was one of his five stakes victories in 2012.
Although Saturday’s race was a disappointment for Wilkes and Fort Larned’s fans, it was a coming out party for Discreet Dancer, who is trained by Todd Pletcher.
The win was the first in a stakes and fourth in five overall starts for Discreet Dancer, a 4-year-old son of Discreet Cat.
He set a Gulfstream track record of 1:02.34 in his career debut on Dec. 3, 2011,but missed most of 2012 with injuries.
Discreet Dancer was the 9-5 second betting choice in Saturday’s six-horse field.
He was ridden by Javier Castellano and won in 1:35.17 — the fastest time in the Gulfstream Park Handicap since its distance was changed to one mile in 2009.
Castellano rode five winners on Saturday and leads Gulfstream jockeys with 77 victories.
“I had a beautiful post [four] in the race and could do whatever I wanted and control the pace,” he said.
• Three jockeys and horses escaped major injury Saturday when they were involved in a spill during Gulfstream’s fifth race.
Jose Lezcano, riding All Alex, and Luis Saez, riding Boss Man, were taken to a local hospital for precautionary measures. Both had full mobility and were speaking.
Francisco Torres, riding Layton Register, walked away from the spill, which occurred as horses entered the backstretch in a 1 1/8-mile turf race.
All three horses were uninjured.
• Gulfstream will have 11 races Sunday with no stakes and first post time of 1:05 p.m. On Saturday, Gulfstream will have the $100,000 Honey Fox Stakes (Grade 3) at one mile on turf for fillies and mares 4 years old and up.
Verrazano coasted to a three-length win over Java’s War on Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby (Grade 2) at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar.
In Saturday’s other Kentucky Derby prep race, Hear the Ghost rallied from fourth place entering the stretch and beat even money favorite Flashback by a half length in the San Felipe (Grade 2) at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
Both winners earned 50 points in this year’s new qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby. Both are virtually certain to have spots in the 20-horse field on May 4.
Verrazano, in his first stakes race, was the 3-5 favorite and ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.96 — a fast time for Tampa Bay Downs. He was ridden by John Velazquez and is trained by Todd Pletcher.
Hear the Ghost, at 5-1, won the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe in 1:42.34 for his first stakes victory. He was ridden by Corey Nakatani and is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer.