LAUREL, MD – Undecided about which direction to take lightly raced but promising 3-year-old Fort Warren, trainer Brittany Russell opted to be patient and let the horse tell her. While his breeding suggests the desire to go long, the son and grandson of Preakness (G1) winners had other ideas.
Months after getting him in the barn, transferred by the ownership group earlier this year from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, Russell triumphantly unveiled Fort Warren May 19 at historic Pimlico Race Course on the undercard of the Black-Eyed Susan (G2).
The entry-level optional claiming allowance for 3-year-olds sprinting six furlongs was the third race for Fort Warren but first since finishing third to ill-fated former stablemate Havnameltdown in the seven-furlong San Vicente (G3) Jan. 29 at Santa Anita.
“It was awesome. I’m just really pleased,” Russell said of Fort Warren, one of three winners she saddled on the day. Russell is the runaway leading trainer at the ongoing Preakness Meet with 13 wins from 29 starters (45 percent), 10 more than runner-up Norman ‘Lynn’ Cash, heading into Thursday’s live program to kick off the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
“He came in and we had some big ideas with him. Obviously, the goal was to maybe get this horse to go a route but the more we had him the more we felt he was probably going to be a better sprinter-type horse,” Russell said. “We got him going, and hopefully he keeps stepping forward from that one.”
Favored at even-money in a field of six, Fort Warren broke a step slow from his rail post under Russell’s husband, champion jockey Sheldon Russell, and settled in third along the rail as 2022 Maryland Million Nursery winner Johnyz From Albany catapulted immediately to the lead from Post 3. Johnyz From Albany was in front through sizzling fractions of 22.63, 44.94 and 57.06 seconds, taking a three-length advantage into the stretch.
Russell began to ask Fort Warren for run midway around the far turn as Johnyz From Albany continued to cruise up front. Russell tipped off the rail to the two path outside the leader and set Fort Warren down for a drive, still trailing by two lengths at the eighth pole. Coming with a steady run, Fort Warren surged past Johnyz From Albany in the final sixteenth and went on to win by 1 ¾ lengths in 1:09.94.
“He showed a little versatility where he’s probably not the fastest. Me and Brittany had spoken in depth since the overnight came out. I’ve ridden against Johnyz From Albany several times. He’s super-fast out of the gate. He had the outside and I told Brittany, ‘He’s probably going to go. He’s probably going to cross over.’ And even in Fort Warren’s maiden race, yeah he was in front but he was hard-used to make the lead,” Russell said. “He’s a year older now. We drew down on the rail. He’s not super-fast first jump but I just said, ‘Look, if they cross over we sit there and hopefully we can tip out at the top of the stretch.’ I’m just happy it worked out.”
Brittany Russell praised her husband’s patient handling of Fort Warren, saving ground and waiting for his chance rather than rushing the horse into a speed duel.
“That’s a typical Sheldon right there,” she said. “I say go, he gets outbroke, no problem. Sheldon’s got it under control. To be fair, that was a really professional effort. That was a good experience for the horse.”
Sheldon Russell was impressed with the way Fort Warren responded to adversity, a carryover from what he has seen from the colt in the mornings since he arrived over the winter.
“He’s always shown promise. We’ve sort of been back and forth on whether he wanted to go long. Obviously, the big races are long,” Russell said. “He’s always been pretty fast in the mornings. We’re just happy that he showed up on the day,” Sheldon Russell said. “I think maybe he’s just a sprinter. Time-wise, it definitely shows that he’s a sprinter.
“He’s very classy. You’ll see even in the post parade, I’ll turn him loose from the pony and he’s just like a big teddy bear. Obviously, he knows how to turn it on,” he added. “I’ve galloped him several days in the morning, he’s very classy, he’s very smart. Hopefully he bounces out of this race and we can have some fun with him.”
Fort Warren fetched $550,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in September 2021, $50,000 more than National Treasure did a month earlier in Saratoga. National Treasure was a head winner of the 148th Preakness for the identical ownership group – SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan.
By Hall of Famer Curlin out of the Bernardini mare La Appassionata, Fort Warren was a popular half-length debut winner last October at Santa Anita. He had his first timed work for Russell at Laurel Park Feb. 25 and had since breezed at Pimlico and Delaware Park for his return, going five furlongs in 1:00.60 May 10 at Laurel in his final pre-race move.
Fort Warren was nominated to the $100,000 Sir Barton for 3-year-old non-winners of a sweepstakes going 1 1/16 miles on the Preakness undercard, but was pointed to the allowance instead. Arabian Lion, trained by Baffert, won the Sir Barton.
“We wanted a good spot to kind of get him back racing because it had been a little while since he had run. We needed to see that,” Russell said. “It’s fun. It’s a day you want to win, especially for these guys. They’ve been really supportive. It’s nice, they’re sending me some good horses.”
Russell won the top prize of $25,000 in the Maryland Jockey Club’s $50,000 trainer bonus program for earning the most points in non-stakes races over Preakness weekend. She also tied with her former boss, Brad Cox, for fourth in the $100,000 trainer bonus program for Preakness weekend stakes races, picking up another $5,500.
“It’s huge. I’m her biggest fan. Her team does a great job,” Sheldon Russell said. “I’m out there most mornings. She’s got some really nice horses, some of the best clients in America. Hopefully the wins continue and she keeps riding me.”