Champion Forte strong Florida Derby favorite

Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte will seek to cement his standing as the top-rated Triple Crown candidate in the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa next Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

The 2022 juvenile champion, who drew Post 11, has been installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite in a field of a dozen 3-year-olds entered in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, which will headline a 14-race program with 10 stakes, including five graded races, worth $2.375 million in purses. The 14-race Florida Derby program with a first-race post time of 11:30 a.m. will offer a $1 million guaranteed Late Pick 5 pool and a $750,000 guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool.

If all 12 entries start, the Florida Derby field will be the largest since Big Brown beat 11 rivals in 2008.

Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Forte established himself as a clear early favorite for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1) when he made an auspicious 2023 debut in the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park. The son of Violence, who had won three consecutive Grade 1 races to finish his 2022 championship season, raced between horses while rating off the early pace before advancing along the backstretch, swinging four-wide into the stretch and drawing away to a 4 ½-length victory under Irad Ortiz Jr.

“The Fountain of Youth couldn’t have gone any better for us,” Pletcher said. “When Irad and I spoke before the race we kind of had a certain plan in mind and sort of had laid out where we hoped he would be. As you know a lot of times when the gate opens things can change and you have to be prepared to adjust to that, but really the race unfolded almost exactly the way we thought it would, and we were in exactly the position we hoped we would be. The real key is when called upon, he was there.”

Forte won four of five starts during his championship juvenile season that was launched with a 7 ¾-length victory at Belmont Park last May. After finishing fourth in the six-furlong Sanford (G2), he rallied from off the pace to win the seven-furlong Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga. He polished off a stellar campaign with a pair of off-the-pace scores around two turns in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

Ortiz has been aboard Forte for all six career starts and has been named to return to the saddle for the Florida Derby.

Forte won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Photo courtesy of Gulfstream Park.

“Irad’s gotten to know the colt really well. He’s rode him in every start, and he’s also worked him quite a few times. I think part of what we’ve been trying to do in the mornings is sort of replicate his running style, sitting off a horse just a little bit and then teaching him to finish up and kind of stay focused,” Pletcher said. “As impressively as he’s won a couple of these races, he’s kind of come to the wire with his ears up taking everything in. Obviously, as these races get a little more difficult, he’ll need to stay focused.”

Pletcher has saddled a record six Florida Derby winners; Scat Daddy, (2007), Constitution (2014), Materiality (2015), Always Dreaming (2017), Audible (2018) and Known Agenda (2021).

“We love the positioning of the Florida Derby five weeks out. We’re happy about that. It gives us a little more time to stay in Florida before we ship north and hopefully have a couple more weeks of good weather before we need to move up,” Pletcher said. “The Florida Derby on its own is a very important race. Historically, it’s been a stallion-making race and an important Grade 1 on any horse’s resume.”

Having already secured sufficient points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Forte and Saturday’s rivals will be eligible for 200 qualifying points that will be shared by the first five finishers with 100 going to the winner. The 50-points that will go to the runner-up will likely be enough to earn a trip to Churchill Downs.