When I grew up watching horse racing, seeing the best juveniles coming back as sophomores and continuing their excellence was commonplace. In the 1970s alone, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid all moved on seamlessly to become sensational champions after winning an Eclipse Award at 2.
It has not happened much since, but the trend is starting to shift again, which has me wondering whether Forte can be such a horse.
Looking back to my early years as a race fan, not only did you have those four great horses winning championships in multiple seasons, but other 2-year-old champions became topnotch horses at 3. Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure and Honest Pleasure readily come to mind. It was a good thing for racing, and it was a great time to be a fan.
And the '70s was no blip on the radar. Numerous juvenile champions in history, such as Man O’War, Count Fleet, Citation, Native Dancer, Nashua and Buckpasser, went on to fulfill their 2-year-old potential and become heroes of the Hall of Fame.
Times change, and clearly racing is a different game than it once was. Top horses do not run nearly as much as they did back in the day, and that is only one reason it has become so much more difficult to win a championship at both 2 and 3.
It’s hard to believe, but when the golden era ended there was a 31-year span after Spectacular Bid in 1979 before another horse came along to win both a championship as both a 2-year-old and as a 3-year-old.
His name was Lookin at Lucky. Trained by Bob Baffert, he did not possess the ability of those aforementioned greats, but his consistent quality made him an easy choice as an Eclipse Award winner in back-to-back years. In fact, if not for bad racing luck, his legacy might be remembered quite differently.
Baffert trained another dual champion five years later. Although American Pharoah raced only three times as a juvenile, he did enough to win a championship. As a 3-year-old, the handsome son of Pioneerof the Nile treated us to a championship season that harkened back to the great champions of yesteryear.
It was another six years after American Pharoah’s juvenile season when Essential Quality came along. A gray son of Tapit, he was a model of consistency. Unfortunately, his only two career losses came in his two most important races, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Still, the Brad Cox-trained runner was good enough to win back-to-back championships.
Of the three recent horses, only American Pharoah had superstar quality, and he might be the only of the three to make it into the Hall of Fame.
That’s it. Those are the only three horses to win an Eclipse Award at both 2 and 3 in the last 43 years. The good news is that all three of them did it in the last 13 years. Is the trend changing? If so, it is a trend that I believe would be good for racing.
Forte, the decisive 2-year-old champion of 2022, has a lot going for him as we begin this year’s Kentucky Derby trail.
Like great champions of the past, Forte showed brilliance early in his first season. He looked like a very good thing when romping home in a 5-furlong maiden race at Belmont Park in May in his debut. He had a hiccup next out when fourth in the Sanford (G3) but made up for it with three big wins to prove best among all juveniles.
Three consecutive rallying Grade 1 wins proved plenty about Forte. He won at different tracks, at varying distances and even on the slop. He did it over a prolonged period as well, with his debut win coming more than five months before his decisive score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
Trained by Todd Pletcher, he is in good hands. And dare we think about the Triple Crown, his trainer knows how to get a horse ready for the full 12 furlongs of the Belmont Stakes.
Forte also has the pedigree for the classics. Owned in partnership by Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola, he is a son of Violence out of the Blame mare Queen Caroline. His breeding suggests that he can excel at any distance. Last year, he only looked stronger as the distance increased.
One more factor in favor of Forte this year is the apparent lack of quality out there. Other than perhaps Arabian Knight, no horse has truly impressed since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This, of course, says little about the champion 2-year-old other than his road to another Eclipse Award might not be stacked with deep and difficult fields.
Scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park on March 4, Forte has resumed his training and has recorded a trio of breezes at Palm Beach Downs. So far, so good for last year’s juvenile champion as he looks to make a smooth and successful transition to his 3-year-old season.
If the last four-plus decades are the new rule, odds are stacked against him to win another championship this year, but Forte gives every indication of being a horse who can make a real run at it in 2023.