Florida and Arkansas Derby Impressions

April 3, 2023

Forte and Angel of Empire win their respective prep races (Coglianese, Coady Photography)

By Laura Pugh

The Road to the Kentucky Derby got hot as fire this past Saturday with the conclusion of the Florida Derby and the Arkansas Derby. 

In the latter, Angel of Empire drew away to an emphatic score, giving him a grand total of 154 points, which ranks second on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard. Meanwhile, in Florida, Forte’s victory caused a wave of controversy well before the issue of final time was brought up. Either you were super impressed or completely underwhelmed. Either way, it’s made for some very interesting discussion. 

Florida Derby

As noted, this race created a fair bit of controversy well before it was discovered that the final time was incorrect. 

The camp that was underwhelmed points to the fact that Forte has failed to make a significant jump forward in speed figured from his two-year-old form. They also feel like he didn’t win as dominantly as an odds-on favorite should.

The camp that wound up super impressed points to several factors. Firstly, he was able to overcome post 11, which had previously gone 2 for 49 during this meet. Secondly, his troubled trip saw him much farther back than is typical, boxed in at the top of the stretch, which gave his main rival in the stretch a 2 ¾ length advantage in the final 1/8th mile of the race.

Count me in the camp as very impressed. Mage, who was behind Forte for most of the race, blew by on the far turn to secure the lead at the top of the stretch. At that point, Forte had run into a group of horses that appeared to create a bit of a bubble around him, impeding his momentum at a crucial point. 

When Irad Ortiz swung wide, there was a furlong to go, and he had nearly 3 lengths to make up on a horse that didn’t look like he was stopping. Then with 1/16th of a mile left, Forte locked onto Mage, leveled off, and swept by his opponent to win by a length. 

Thanks to the timing kerfuffle, courtesy of Gulfstream Park, there is some debate as to what Forte’s closing split time really is. Originally, it would have calculated to 11.70 seconds. With the correction, it is 12.56, which is still impressive. However, it could wind up somewhere in between, as there seems to be no definitive way to prove that the trip came at the wire or at another point in the race. 

Arkansas Derby

There were several storylines coming into this race. Redemption for Reincarnate, Angel of Empire Fluke or For Real, Can Rocket Can shine outside of Forte’s Shadow… The list goes on. 

When the dust settled, the story that came out on top was Angel of Empire is definitely for real.

There were several questioning just how legitimate his race in the Risen Star Stakes really was. On that day, he had the benefit of facing what appeared to be a suspect field that seemingly fell apart after the favorite, then-unbeaten Victory Formation, failed to fire.

The son of Classic Empire didn’t seem to come home all that fast, with the final furlong being completed in just a shade under 13 seconds, and exiting the race, his figures weren’t all that impressive with only an 87 Beyer Speed Figure and a 110 TimeformUS Figure. 

On Saturday, he made a pretty impressive move forward. He still had a very clear, trouble-free trip, however, his closing 1/8th of a mile in 12.12 is much more encouraging and his numbers improved to a 95 BSF and a 117 TimeformUS. 

Conclusions

When it comes to Forte, I think he is being underrated. Horses with his “target lock” running style run to their competition. They extend their selves to the point of getting to the lead and then switch off. This can greatly impact their figures… Think Zenyatta, who was notorious for earning low figures, only to jump up when the competition required it.

If that is the case, figures will not tell you the entire story with Forte. Even if he has improved, he likely won’t show us until he absolutely has to, and that may very well be in the Kentucky Derby.

On the other hand, while he did improve, I believe Angel of Empire is being overrated. Not only did he have the benefit of another very good trip, while facing horses that are B ranked in many barns, but he also benefitted from a strong pace over a track that was very taxing to horses that went quick early.

That is what happened in the Arkansas Derby, and it resulted in a pace collapse. This scenario happened last year with Cyberknife in this very race. It led to him getting overbet and ultimately finishing up the track in the Kentucky Derby. Given the similarities, I feel like Angel of Empire will wind up being this year’s version of Cyberknife. 

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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