Leoti's Whitham has winning horse Fort Larned at Breeders' Cup.


Leoti's Whitham has winning horse Fort Larned at Breeders' Cup.

Leoti's Whitham has winning horse Fort Larned at Breeders' Cup.



Janis Whitham lives on the edge of Leoti.

She has been a resident there while farming northwest of town since 1957, after being born and raised in Scott City and graduating from Scott City High School.

Her lifelong love affair with horses has brought her to the heights of the racing industry, more a way of life for most of those who experience thoroughbred racing.

The joy of horse racing for Whitham was never more evident than on Nov. 3, when her horse, Fort Larned, named for the historic location in central Kansas, won the coveted Breeder's Cup Classic, a $5 million purse against the top horses in the world. Fort Larned took the race with a half-length victory over Mucho Macho Man.

"He's a free-runner, the type of horse who enjoys running in front," Whitham said from her Leoti home. "Some horses are dead closers, but he doesn't like getting dirt in his eyes and mouth."

The 1 1/4-mile race took place at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, Calif., and was witnessed by a crowd of 55,000-plus fans and countless millions on television.

"Oh, it's so exciting," Whitham said. "We didn't go out there with the idea of knowing we'd win. You just don't want to get drubbed by the older horses. But he got out of the gate and just ran an amazing race. He's a good enough horse, once he's in the lead, he doesn't like to give it up."

Whitham, whose interest in horse racing and thoroughbreds dates back to the early 1980s with her late husband, Frank, said Fort Larned and her other thoroughbred horses are kept in Kentucky, at Maple Lane Farms, just outside of Lexington, the heart and soul of thoroughbred horse farms.

Fort Larned is a 4-year-old who didn't exactly set the racing world on fire as a 3-year-old, according to Whitham.

"He was doing pretty poorly, to be truthful," Whitham said of Fort Larned's track record a year ago. "But he came to hand early this year in Florida. I'd say he was a very moderate horse until then."

In early spring, Fort Larned won at Tampa and then ran well at Churchill Downs, finishing second in the Alysheeba and then won the Cornhusker in Iowa in early summer.

Whitham said she never thought she'd have the experience of one of her horses winning one of the most famous horse races.

"It's hard to imagine because I'd never seriously thought about it (Breeders' Cup) until this year," Whitham said. "Only a few get a chance to enter, and so you do all you can to get raced up to it."

And the experience during the two minutes of the race itself?

"You just hold your breath, especially down the stretch," she said. "Everybody's cheering, you're the underdog, it's the last race of the day and you just hope that your horse finishes strong. That day, Fort Larned came through in a big way. It was pretty exciting. There's not much better that a person can experience if they love horse racing."

Whitham said her interest in horses started back in the 1960s with quarter horses, and she would race them at Centennial Race Track near Denver before she eventually switched over to thoroughbreds.

"The races are longer and the purses better," Whitham said.

The Breeders' Cup victory was not the first such winning experience at Santa Anita for Whitham.

In 1989 and 1990, her mare, Bayakoa, an Argentinian horse, won the distaff title both years. From Bayakoa came a thoroughbred named E-Dubai. And E-Dubai sired Fort Larned, making him a grandson of Bayakoa.

"Him being the grandson of Bayakoa made it all the more fun," Whitham said of the family bloodline. "It brought back a lot of nice memories. I don't know if you ever think you'll be back in the winner's circle, especially after more than 20 years."

Fort Larned was ridden by jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who celebrated his 27th birthday in the saddle for the victory. Fort Larned's trainer is Ian Wilkes, a relative unknown in the business, according to Whitham.

"You go looking for trainers, meet them, get to know them and I got along quite well with him," Whitham said.

Hernandez was also a sleeper to match up with Whitham, Wilkes and Fort Larned.

"Ian picked him up. We were kind of having a hard time finding the right fit," Whitham said. "We wanted to make sure the jockey fit the horse. He (Wilkes) had a lot of other riders that he looked at, but Brian is a nice young man and rode him (Fort Larned) like I an wanted him to."

That team partnered well through the summer and fall racing schedule, winning the Whitney at Saratoga in New York in August and placing third at the Jockey Club Golf Cup in September.

"We just felt like he was really coming along nicely, and then got the invitation to run in California," Whitham said. "It takes a while for a horse to get there sometimes. You just have to be patient, and a little lucky."

Whitham said she has several other foals in training at Maple Farms, and several times during the year will make the trip to Kentucky to visit her "babies."

"You mainly go in the fall and spring to see how your babies are doing," Whitham said. "Then, you can begin to make a plan for them."

She has five grown children, all living in a geographic area ranging from Denver to Wichita, but all having roots in western Kansas.

"I'm kind of in the middle of all of them, so they are not that far away," Whitham said of her children.

Whitham doesn't see any slowdown in her horse racing life.

"We'll give Fort Larned some time off, a little vacation," Whitham said. "He's a nice, sound horse."

She plans to run him again in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. and then again at Saratoga in New York.

"We'll see if we can find our way back to Santa Anita next year, too," she said.

It's a safe bet she'll do everything she can to see her horse back in the winner's circle.

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