Forte Displays Pure Heart in G1 Florida Derby Thriller

April 1, 2023

Forte spectacular in capturing the Florida Derby (Coglianese)

Gulfstream Park Press Release

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.— Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte overcame adversity to prevail in Saturday’s $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa at Gulfstream Park in spectacular fashion.

Sent to post as the 1-5 favorite in a field of 12 despite drawing a disadvantageous Post 11, Forte was mired in traffic and taking more than his share of kickback on the first turn, advanced on the backstretch while racing very wide before swinging five-wide on the turn into the homestretch and kicking in through the stretch to make up several lengths to overtake Mage nearing the wire.

“I was worried, he had a lot to do turning for home. He had to angle out really wide and kind of got a wide trip all the way around there, but he had a pretty smooth run it; he just had to lose a lot of ground to do it,” said Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher after Forte gave him his record seventh Florida Derby success. “It looked like he had a lot to do still at the eighth pole but then really kicked in the last part and found his best stride the last sixteenth.”

Forte, the 2022 champion juvenile, had prepped for the Florida Derby with a gritty but less-testing 4 ½-length triumph in his 2023 debut in the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) by 4 ½ lengths at Gulfstream. While winning the Florida Derby seemingly against the odds at odds-on, the son of Violence prevailed over the largest Florida Derby field since Big Brown defeated 11 rivals in 2008 from Post 12.

Southern California shipper Fort Bragg set the pace around the first turn and along the backstretch under Joel Rosario, chased by Mr. Peeks, Mr. Ripple and Cyclone Mischief past fractions of 23.57 and 46.71 second for the first half mile. As Ortiz was still negotiating his way out of trouble aboard Forte, Conquest Mischief made a bold move on the turn into the homestretch but was quickly joined by a surging Mage, the 9-2 second choice ridden by Luis Saez, to his outside.

Mage rolled to the lead at the top of the stretch, looking like he had gotten a good enough jump on the favorite to win the Florida Derby in only his third career start, but the Pletcher trainee strode out through the stretch to pull out the gamest of victories by a length.

“He grabbed the bit and the outside horse {Mage] moved and [Forte] gave me a good feeling and he’s ready to roll,” Ortiz said. “He jumped on the bit and I said, ‘We can go around.’ The trainer told me to ride him with patience. It’s a long stretch going a mile and an eighth, so that’s what I did.”

Forte’s courage in the face of adversity particularly impressed his trainer.

“He just continues to amaze us. He gets better and better,” Pletcher said. “He handled the stretch-out to a mile an eighth great and actually probably ran a mile and three-sixteenths today. It gives you a lot of confidence moving forward.

“He got a lot of experience today. The one good thing about here is you get a big crowd, a noisy crowd, long post parade, so they get exposed to a lot,” he added. “That experience hopefully pays off down the road.”

Celebrations very much in order after a thrilling Florida Derby (Coglianese)

Forte ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.51 to win his sixth win in seven career starts, including three Grade 1 victories in the Hopeful, Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to conclude his 2-year-old season before winning his first two starts at Gulfstream in impressive fashion. Mage, who finished fourth in the Fountain of Youth off a sparkling debut victory, finished second, two lengths clear of Conquest Cyclone and jockey Javier Castellano.

The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, the headliner of a 14-race program with 10 stakes, including five graded races, worth $2.35 million in purses, offered 200 qualifying points for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1) with the first five finishers earning points on a 100-50-30-20-10 basis.

Forte, who clearly had sufficient points to make the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, firmly cemented his status as pre-race favorite with his strong showing Saturday. Mage virtually clinched a Derby berth with his second-place finish under Luis Saez.

“We expected a better break from the gate. That was the key. It happened again; it can’t happen in a race like the Derby,” assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado said. “Other than that, what else can you ask? Good thing Luis didn’t panic, so he didn’t force him. He let him get his stride. He made a move and I thought he was getting home. He might have gotten tired but, remember, it’s still his third race. How many races did it take for Forte to get to the level he is?”

Cyclone Mischief, who finished two lengths clear of fourth-place finisher Mr. Ripple, picked up 30 points to sit on the Derby bubble at 45 points.

“I thought he ran a beautiful race. I thought he put himself where he needed to be. I thought Javier rode him well,” trainer Dale Romans said. “I think it’s on to Churchill. I thought today like he handled [the distance] fine. The pace scenario might be a little different going [1 ¼ miles]. It might be even better for him.”

Pletcher had previously Scat Daddy, (2007), Constitution (2014), Materiality (2015), Always Dreaming (2017), Audible (2018) and Known Agenda (2021) for Florida Derby victories.

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