Forte defeats Mage in a thrilling renewal of the Florida Derby (Jeff Zamaiko)
Gulfstream Park Press Release
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.— Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte, a popular and determined winner of the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa, will remain in South Florida for now to await his next assignment in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1).
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher reported Sunday that the 2-year-old male champion of 2022 emerged from his one-length victory over Mage in good order and left Gulfstream Park early Sunday morning to return to Pletcher’s winter base at Palm Beach Downs
“He’s good. He shipped back early this morning and he looks very well,” Pletcher said. “We’ll kind of leave it open. I think we’ll stay here at least a couple of weeks. We’ll monitor the weather here, that it doesn’t start to get too hot, and kind of monitor what the Louisville forecast looks like and if it kind of becomes springtime and [there’s] not a lot of rain in the forecast then we might shift up there for his last couple of works. I think we’ll just play it by ear for a little while and see how things are developing.”
Forte had plenty to overcome in the Florida Derby to earn his fifth straight victory and fourth in a Grade 1 in an effort and under circumstances that Pletcher felt would be an ideal bridge to the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby.
“I think the one thing we learned in the Florida Derby is that he handled the race really well. The best part of the race for him was the last sixteenth of a mile, which gives you confidence that the added distance won’t be an issue,” Pletcher said. “He seems to have taken it well. He was on his toes after the race which he normally is, just like he is kind of in the walking ring beforehand.
“It showed that he still had some good energy left after the race, but we’ll learn a lot more about that as we kind of train this week,” he added. “What was impressive yesterday was when he did make the lead, he kind of pricked his ears again which we’ve seen him do a number of times. It kind of makes you believe there’s a little more in the tank there.”
Sent off the 1-5 favorite, Forte had to beat the largest Florida Derby field since Big Brown also defeated 11 rivals in 2008 and had to do it from the second-widest post since 1991 – Big Brown won from Post 12 and Barbaro from Post 10 in 2006. Both horses would go on to win in Kentucky.
It was a record-extending seventh Florida Derby victory for Pletcher following Scat Daddy (2007), Constitution (2014), Materiality (2015), Always Dreaming (2017), Audible (2018) and Known Agenda (2021). Always Dreaming gave Pletcher his second Kentucky Derby win after Super Saver in 2010.
“The first one was great and every one since then has also been special,” Pletcher said. “We’ve been very fortunate and blessed.
“The schedule’s changed a bit. When I first started coming to Gulfstream the Florida Derby was sort of a prep for a final prep, and now, with the positioning of it five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, to me, it’s kind of become the ideal Derby prep,” he added. “I love the spacing of it, the five weeks until the Kentucky Derby. So it’s kind of changed a little bit as we’ve gone along, but really I like where it’s positioned.”
In its storied history, the Florida Derby has produced 45 starters that have gone on to win a remarkable 58 Triple Crown races. Twenty-four of those wins have come in the Derby, with Always Dreaming being the most recent.
The Kentucky Derby will be the third start of a sophomore campaign for Forte that began with a powerful 4 ½-length triumph in the Fountain of Youth (G2) March 4 at Gulfstream, coming four months to the day since clinching his division championship in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). His other wins at 2 came in the Hopeful (G1) and Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and he currently tops the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 190 points.
“We liked the schedule that we laid out for him. We liked the Fountain of Youth as his comeback race, which went very smoothly. Then we got a good solid race in the Florida Derby,” Pletcher said. “Part of the reason we chose the Florida Derby over the Blue Grass was the additional week to the Kentucky Derby. I think that spacing is good, hopefully, to have him move forward again.”
Rather than going extremely wide after the short run to the first turn in the Florida Derby, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. opted to drop in and save some ground and wound up trailing all but two horses into the backstretch. Ortiz let Forte find his stride and navigated a trip around horses but still had to chase down Mage, who had gotten the jump on Forge with a bold move on the far turn. Ortiz kept after Forte and he responded even after Mage opened up midway through the stretch to what seemed an insurmountable lead.
“I thought when he angled out there was still a chance, but then when he kind of came by where I was sitting in the grandstand at the eighth pole he still had a lot to do. At that point I was kind of thinking, man, I hope he can get up for second,” Pletcher said. “And then all of a sudden he kind of dropped down. You can visually see him lower down and start extending. To think that when he came by me at the eighth pole that he was going to win by a length, I would have thought that was impossible at that point.
“A race like this where he’s 1-5 on the board and everyone’s expecting a win – it’s not always easy to win a race so you don’t take anything for granted, especially when we drew an outside post,” he added. “You’re nervous for the horse, wanting him to perform to his capabilities. Knowing how good he is just adds a little more tension to it.”
OGMA Investments, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing and CMNWLTH’s Mage, in just his third career start, earned 40 points for his runner-up finish and has likely earned a spot in the Derby field with a total of 50, ranking 12th on the list. The Good Magic colt entered the Florida Derby off a front-running maiden win in January and a fourth in the Fountain of Youth trailing Forte and Holy Bull (G3) winner Rocket Can and just a length behind Cyclone Mischief.
Trainer Dale Romans indicated Albaugh Family Stables and Castleton Lyons’ Cyclone Mischief will be Derby-bound. He followed up a redemptive third in the Fountain of Youth with another strong third in the Florida Derby and ranks 15th with 45 points.
“He looks good,” Romans said Sunday. “We look forward to the Derby. His last couple races have been good and he keeps improving, so we’ll have him back in there.”