Kentucky Derby favorite Forte works hard to win Florida Derby

Kentucky Derby favorite Forte works hard to win Florida Derby
Photo: Nicole Thomas / Gulfstream Park

Forte fortified his position as the Kentucky Derby 2023 favorite when he overcame an outside post and an upstart named Mage to win the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby by one all-out length Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

The polished son of Violence rattled off his fifth consecutive victory, four of them Grade 1s. The 2-year-old champion is 2-for-2 as a sophomore, having dominated the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) by 4 1/2 lengths in his previous prep in South Florida.

Click here for Gulfstream Park entries and results.

The Florida Derby was no Fountain of Youth. This was arguably the most demanding race of Forte’s sterling career. He was all guts and heart through a drive that seemingly took forever.

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. said he began to ask his mount for more coming out of the first turn as he found himself with so much to do near the back of the pack as a result of his disadvantageous post.

“I keep asking, keep coming, keep coming, keep coming,” Ortiz said.

As co-owner Vincent Viola watched the drama unfold, he knew why he has invested so much in a high-risk, right-reward game.

“If you’re a horse racing fan like myself,” he said, “you witnessed a magnificent performance, a definitive performance.”

Ortiz was able to chew up ground quickly, but so was Mage, making only his third start. It appeared Forte was in deep trouble when, after a wide trip, Mage shot by him around the final turn that leads into a short stretch.

“It looked like he had a lot to do still at the eighth pole,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “But then he really kicked in the last part and found his best stride the last sixteenth.”

Some may argue that an extremely demanding test was not what Forte needed five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher thinks it will position his horse well.

“He just continues to amaze us. He gets better and better,” the trainer said after he extended his record with his seventh Florida Derby triumph. “He handled the stretch out to a mile-and-an-eighth and actually probably ran a mile-and-three-sixteenths. It gives you a lot of confidence moving forward.”

Mage, who seemingly possesses a world of potential, had trouble leaving the starting gate when he ran fourth in the Fountain of Youth. The same woes beset him this time despite trainer Gustavo Delgado’s emphasis on gate schooling. In addition, jockey Luis Sáez, aboard for the first time, told Delgado that Mage idled a bit once he collared front-running Cyclone Mischief. And against Forte, there is no margin for error.

Forte continued his relentless rally and blew past his less seasoned rival, narrowly averting what would have been a shocking upset. He paid $2.60 to win in completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.51.

(Editor’s note: Equibase revised the winning time Sunday to 1:49.37. No changes were made to the early fractions.)

Forte’s lone defeat occurred in the second start of his career, when he ran fourth in the Sanford Stakes (G3) on July 16 in the second start of his career.

Pletcher’s previous Florida Derby scores in the most significant race of South Florida’s prep season came with Scat Daddy in 2007, Constitution in 2014, Materiality in 2015, Always Dreaming in 2017, Audible in 2018 and Known Agenda in 2021.

Forte will need to buck history, however, because only Always Dreaming, owned in part by Viola, made his owners’ dreams come true on the first Saturday in May. He also will try to become only the third Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to bring home the roses by joining Street Sense in 2006-07 and Nyquist in 2015-16. The Juvenile has been run every year since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup at old Hollywood Park in 1984.

History does not seem to matter all that much to hard-charging Forte. He became only the third of 50 runners to win from post 11 at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream since 2008. He overcame the largest Florida Derby field since Big Brown dispatched 11 foes in 2008.

There was perhaps some victory in defeat for Mage, who was unraced at 2 while Forte was building a tremendous foundation to draw upon.

“We’re over the moon. We just got beat in the last 10 yards,” co-owner Ramiro Restrepo said. “This is amazing.”

Cyclone Mischief settled for third, his same placing as in the Fountain of Youth.

“I think it’s on to Churchill,” trainer Dale Romans said. “I thought he looked like he handled (the distance) fine. The pace scenario might be a little different (going 1 1/4 miles). It might even be better for him.”

Mr. Ripple and Fort Bragg finished fourth and fifth, respectively. The Florida Derby awarded 100-40-30-20-10 qualifying points to the top five finishers, including 100 to the winner. Not that the valiant Forte needed them.

Top Stories

Five North American tracks will host 11 graded sta...
The connections of Forte hope their champion is a...
Preakness winner National Treasure worked a half-m...
Unless plans change, the Grade 1, $500,000 Ogden P...
In this biweekly series, racing analyst Keeler Joh...