Florida Derby: Focus on Forte

Mar 31, 2018; Hallandale Beach, FL, USA; Trainer Todd Pletcher stands in the winners circle after a race during Florida Derby day at Gufstream Park. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Derby: Focus on Forte

Preps for the Kentucky Derby (G1) drive into primetime on April 1 with the Florida Derby (G1) and Arkansas Derby (G1). Both have long-standing histories of producing Kentucky Derby winners, and both are 100 point (to the winner) events—essentially automatic entries–on the Road to Churchill Downs.

There is one horse that will draw the lion’s share of attention in the Florida Derby: Forte. Last year’s champion 2-year-old male made his 3-year-old bow March 4 in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and lived up to the hype, crushing his rivals by 4 ½ lengths and looking good doing it. To show what others think of him, Rocket Can, the worthy runner-up behind Forte, has packed his tack and has shipped to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby. That leaves third-place finisher Cyclone Mischief to carry the banner. He was six lengths back of Forte last time. Can he make up six lengths here? Doubtful.

The interesting bit about the Florida Derby is the fact the racing office found 11 horses to join Forte in the starting gate. None apparently have the credentials to make much of a ripple … and that includes Mr. Ripple (post 8). Mr. Ripple is one of four being saddled by Gulfstream Park trainer Saffie Josephs. Combined, they have one stakes start.

Forte did draw way outside in post 11, which will make him and rider Irad Ortiz Jr. have to work, but it’s better to be outside and clear than to be down inside behind horses of lesser talent. One comparable Florida Derby storyline to Saturday’s race is Big Brown, winner of the Florida and Kentucky Derbys in 2008. He was a big favorite coming out of post 12 at Gulfstream, and while there may have been an anxious moment or two, he won by five lengths like the good thing he was. That came in Big Brown’s third career start and first against stakes company.

Forte has plenty of “bottom,” having faced the top of his class multiple times last year at 2. He is perhaps more comparable to Seattle Slew, who dusted his rivals in the Flamingo Stakes (G1) at the old Hialeah Park in his second start as a sophomore in March 1977.

A victory in any size or shape and Forte and trainer Todd Pletcher head to Churchill Downs as the short-price favorite for the Derby. A loss of any size or shape turns the Derby into a puzzle.

Of those that stand the best chance to upend the apple cart, Fort Bragg has some traction. The son of Tapit, formerly trained by Bob Baffert and now with Tim Yakteen, ran fifth in his seasonal bow March 4 in Santa Anita Park’s San Felipe Stakes (G2) but flashed talent last year when he defeated Reincarnate in a two-turn maiden heat Nov. 4. Reincarnate is the likely favorite for the Arkansas Derby off a troubled outing last out in Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes (G2).

The Danny Gargan-trained Dubyuhnell was game at 2 but was a major disappointment as the favorite in Tampa Bay Park’s Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3). Many a runner has not taken to the surface at Tampa Bay, and it would be reasonable for him to show a better effort. On the downside, he has drawn outside Forte in post 12 … a tough place to start. Mage was fourth in the Fountain of Youth after running a hole in the wind breaking his maiden at first asking in late January. There appears to be plenty of upside for Mage, but he faces Forte again for the second time in four weeks.

This year’s group of 3-year-old fillies is a mixed bag. Last weekend’s Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) drew a short field, and the results lacked any “wow” factor. Also, last weekend was the Bourbonette Stakes at Turfway Park which was won by an interesting Botantical, but she wasn’t facing stellar competition.

The Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) lacks a true standout. The prep race, the March 4 Davona Dale Stakes (G2), saw the rebound of Dorth Vader, who won at 46-1. She’s 4-1 on the morning line for Saturday. New York-bred Miracle, also trained by Pletcher, ran well on the front end at Fair Grounds in the Feb. 18 Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2), and believe it or not, the New York-bred filly contingent is strong with the likes of Maple Leaf Mel and Les Bon Temps, who both finished in front of Miracle last season. If she can grab the lead from post 5, it would be no surprise to see her take them all the way.

Arkansas Derby

Once upon a time, the Arkansas Derby was run two weeks before the Run for the Roses. Later moved to three weeks, now it’s five weeks out, which suits how trainers prefer to space their races these days. Most trainers are fond of the surface at Oaklawn Park, and it complements Churchill Downs’ strip the best of all the tracks offering prep races.

Oaklawn and the Arkansas Derby have long been a springboard for Southern California-based trainer Bob Baffert to transition certain runners from the West Coast to Central Kentucky. His most famous tourist to Oaklawn was 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh and Baffert is a four-time Arkansas Derby-winning trainer. In the midst of a two-year ban from Churchill Downs on the heels of Medina Spirit being disqualified in 2021, the majority of his Triple Crown runners have been transferred to Tim Yakteen.

Yakteen-trained Reincarnate, a $775,000 sale yearling, ran third in the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes (G2) in the slop at Oaklawn after a difficult beginning. He started his 3-year-old season defeating fellow Baffert-trained runners Newgate and National Treasure. A better first few jumps out of the gate figures to put him in the mix earlier … and later.

The Brad Cox-trained Angel of Empire was a 13-1 winner at Fair Grounds in the Feb. 18 Risen Star and, despite remaining in New Orleans to train, goes here in Hot Springs. He gets a rider switch as well. It seems a bit inconsistent on one side of the coin, but on the class side of the coin, the third-place finisher at Fair Grounds, Two Phil’s, won last weekend’s Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3).

We’ll look elsewhere and go out on a limb, siding with the front-running Two Eagles River. Trainer Chris Hartman, while not among the “super trainers” that tend to dominate these events, he’s a more than capable horseman who makes his living at Oaklawn and Churchill Downs. For the meet, he’s winning at a 32% clip, and his runner’s speed figures have been consistently inching higher.

He’s well drawn in post 4 and is 10-1 on the morning line. While light on stakes company, Two Eagles River defeated Disarm last out by four lengths. Disarm ran second in the Louisiana Derby (G2). In December 2022, Two Eagles River missed by a head in the Renaissance Stakes at Oaklawn, topping fellow Arkansas Derby entrant Bourbon Bash by two lengths. His “company lines” show he’s been running with top horses. This could be his moment.

The Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies drew a cast of 10, seven of which ran in the Feb. 25 Honeybee Stakes that was won by Wet Paint. Wet Paint is the obvious one here, but in events that bring together many of the same horses, it is often a good idea to take a closer look at the others. The other three have also all been stabled at Oaklawn. Trainer Mike Maker has an up-and-comer in Pate, a daughter of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. She’s yet to travel beyond six furlongs—the Fantasy is 1 1/16 miles—but she rallied from last to miss by a neck in the Feb. 11 Dixie Belle Stakes. She gets Florent Geroux for this, and her breeder is Chance Farm. I’ll be taking a chance on her Saturday.

Recap: Kingsbarns went gate to wire in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and quickly vaulted up the lists of top Derby prognosticators. We’ll wait. He was making just his third start, so there is brilliance built in, but also a lack of experience I’d prefer to see on the First Saturday in May. In breaking down his fractional times, his third quarter was faster than his second—good to see—but the opening half-mile was a moderate: 49.60 … something he won’t catch at Churchill Downs. He’ll be among the favorites for sure in a few weeks—let’s see what he looks like then.

Our choice, the Brad Cox-trained Jace’s Road broke through the starting gate before the break, which is never a good sign. He ran OK, but tired late, finishing third, 6 ¼ lengths behind Kingsbarn. He’s already bedded down in Louisville … it will be interesting to see what’s the next move.

Impressive was Jeff Ruby Steaks winner Two Phil’s. Seasoned now with five graded stakes races under his belt, he charged from off the pace in solid fashion. Races over synthetic surfaces are hard to gauge when looking toward their next start, but he won at the Grade 3 level last fall at Churchill Downs, so there is good dirt track form on his PPs. The luxury here is there are five weeks to his next start to watch his work pattern and observe how he develops.

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