ARCADIA, Calif. -- A year ago, they headlined a Murderer's Row of Kentucky-based contenders at the Breeders' Cup World Championships.
But after all that has happened since last November, it's an achievement in itself that Wise Dan, Fort Larned, Groupie Doll and Little Mike are back in the Santa Anita Park barns this week trying defend the wins that defined their 2012 seasons.
While the above foursome represent nearly half of the nine returning race winners entered for the two-day event, it hasn't exactly been a case of deja vu that has brought them back.
The weight of expectations has a tendency to alter how form is perceived, a fact the connections of the defending Breeders' Cup champions can attest to this season. Where reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan and champion Groupie Doll had an air of invincibility engulfing them en route to their victories in the Breeders' Cup Mile and Filly & Mare Sprint, respectively, both are coming off losses that have sparked questions about their vulnerability.
Where he comfortably came in under the radar 12 months ago, Fort Larned has spent 2013 trying to get back to the level that allowed him to win last year's $5 million Classic. A sublime win in the Grade I Stephen Foster in June was sandwiched between fifth-place runs in the Oaklawn and Whitney Handicaps, but trainer Ian Wilkes thinks he saw the ship righted during the 5-year-old's win in the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs on Sept. 28.
Dale Romans-trainee Little Mike, a 17-1 shot in the Turf last year despite having two prior Grade I wins, earned his first victory in five starts since that triumph when he took the Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont on Sept. 28.
"Yeah it's a little different this year because you won last year and you come in but ... a lot changed this year," said Wilkes, who has saddled Fort Larned to two wins in five starts this season. "(Wise Dan) got beat, (Groupie Doll) got beat, whereas this year I'm coming in off a win, Dale is coming off a win. So it's like the roles are reversed but hopefully with the same result."
The ease with which Wise Dan won last year's Mile in course-record time carried over into his first five starts this year as Morton Fink's homebred turned outings in the Grade I Woodbine Mile, Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Maker's 46 Mile into well-paid workouts.
The result few saw coming, however, transpired in Keeneland's Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 5 when the 6-year-old was defeated by Silver Max after that race came off the turf and was run over the Polytrack at 11/16 miles because of heavy rain.
However, the second-guessing trainer Charlie LoPresti has done in the aftermath has nothing to do with Wise Dan's ability. LoPresti did not work the chestnut gelding between his Woodbine Mile win on Sept. 15 and the Shadwell, a decision he wishes he could change.
"As hard as he ran at Woodbine, I thought he was fitter coming out of that race and I didn't push him very much," LoPresti said. "I pretty much didn't do anything with him from Woodbine until that race (Shadwell) and I think I made a mistake to be honest. But I think track condition played a big role, too.
"If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn't have run him or I would have breezed him in between but ... I got him where I want him now. I don't want to go in (to the Mile) cocky but I don't think you saw the best Wise Dan (in the Shadwell)."
That same Oct. 5 Keeneland card marked the second defeat for Groupie Doll in three starts this year as she ran third in the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes.
Considering the 5-year-old won four straight graded stakes en route to her 41/2-length romp in last year's Filly & Mare Sprint, trainer and co-owner Buff Bradley has heard more than one opine that his homebred mare has lost her explosiveness.
The biggest counter to that argument, Bradley said, is the demeanor of the mare he has raised since birth. Since arriving in California, he has been eased by the site of Groupie Doll pulling exercise rider Jada Schlenk's arms out around the track each morning.
"When I got in and came to the barn, I felt really good because she was jumping around and feeling good, very forward walking not just like a lazy walk," Bradley said. "Then watching her breeze (4 furlongs in :47.40 Saturday), she did it very easily. I see all these fast works all these horses are doing but then seeing her, I do feel at ease seeing how good she is. It gets you pumped up and excited."
Wilkes, LoPresti and Bradley made a pact among themselves heading into last year's Breeders' Cup that there had to be hardware traveling back in Kentucky-bound suitcases.
Even if their horses' return paths look different, that part of the agenda is unchanged.
"I felt like I had the tougher race (to win) last year and, I do again this year," Wilkes laughed. "But when you got a good horse that's what it's about."
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