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Forte won the 2023 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park, a prep race for the 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1) worth 50 points to the winner. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion picked up where he left off last November, extending his win streak to 4 – all in graded stakes. Is he the unquestionably #1 Derby prospect? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte made an auspicious 3-year-old debut Saturday at Gulfstream Park, where last year’s Eclipse Award-winning juvenile scored a dominating 4 ½-length victory in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2).
The 1 1/16-mile stakes for 3-year-olds is a key prep for the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) on April 1, as well as a designated prep for the Kentucky Derby (G1). Forte earned 50 points for his tour de force performance, further cementing his status as favorite for this year’s first jewel of the Triple Crown with a total of 140 points.
The Fountain of Youth headlined a 14-race program with nine stakes, eight graded, worth $1.85 million in purses.
Forte was sent to post as the 1-2 favorite in the Fountain of Youth field that was reduced to nine upon the scratch of General Jim Saturday morning. Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher was even less surprised by the way Forte won the Fountain of Youth than the bettors who made the son of Violence their heavy favorite.
“Honestly, I can’t say I was surprised,” Pletcher said. “I felt really, really good about the way this horse was coming into the race.”
Forte experienced light bumping leaving the gate but quickly recovered to get to the rail heading into the first turf, tracking pacesetter Cyclone Mischief, Dangerous Ride, Rocket Can and Mage. Jockey Irad Ortiz eased Forte off the rail along the backstretch as Cyclone Mischief continued to show the way while putting up fractions of 24.05 and 47.65 seconds for the first half mile. On the turn into the homestretch, Rocket Can, the Holy Bull (G3) winner ridden by Junior Alvarado, began to put heavy pressure on Cyclone Mischief with Mage hanging in there to their outside, as Ortiz swung Forte four-wide for the drive. The champion quickly asserted his superiority and drew clear to a comfortable victory.
“I had a beautiful trip; everything I expected happened,” Ortiz said. “I wanted to get a good position forwardly placed, I was right behind the horse I had to be; I just bided my time to go, decided to wait a little more, two more jumps until the 3/8ths (pole); I went around horses and let him go and show what he can do.’
Making his first start since capturing the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland, Forte ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43:12 without pressure.
“We kind of carefully laid it out and put him in a program that would put him in the condition to be ready to run and still having room for improvement and room to continue to develop,” Pletcher said. “I think we were able to accomplish that.”
Forte won four of five starts during his championship juvenile season that he 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).
“It looks like there’s a lot of upside,” said Pletcher, who had previously saddled three other Fountain of Youth winners – Itsaknockout (2016), Eskendereya (2010) and Scat Daddy (2007) – with Scat Daddy going on to give his trainer one of his record six victories in the Florida Derby.
Mike Repole, who owns Forte in partnership with Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable, was obviously elated with his colt’s performance.
“It’s special. Very special. Very special. You know, for a horse making his first start in four months against other horses who have already raced this year, he does it with so much confidence,” Repole said. “It’s like everything you see – breaks well, sits well, moves well, looks great. He’s just checking all the boxes right now. He’s a pretty special horse right now.”
Rocket Can held second, 1 ¼ lengths ahead of Cyclone Mischief, to pick up 20 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, virtually assuring the Holy Bull winner a spot in the Kentucky Derby field with 60 total points.
“He ran big. He was a little sharp leaving there. He broke awfully sharp. He was a little geared up in the post parade. He was a little more wound up than I actually like to see him. I was hoping he wouldn’t get too excited, but he still looked like he ran his race,” Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. “He looked like he held on well. He broke sharp, in good position, was tactical and ran well.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher (Forte, 1st): “He kind of got jostled around a bit leaving there. We got to the spot where we wanted to get to. He was able to save some ground on the first turn, He was traveling well behind those horses and it pretty much unfolded the way we talked about and the way we hoped.”
“We kind of carefully laid it out and put him in a program that would put him in the condition to be ready to run and still having room for improvement and room to continue to develop. I think we were able to accomplish that.”
“Honestly, I can’t say I was surprised. I felt really, really good the way this horse was coming into the race. It looks like there’s a lot of upside.”
Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. (Forte, 1st): “I had a beautiful trip. Everything I expected happened. I wanted to get a good position forwardly placed. I was right behind the horse I had to be. I just bided my time to go, decided to wait a little more, two more jumps until the three-eighths [pole]. I went around horses and let him go and show what he can do.”
“He’s a nice horse. He just came back from his 2-year old [campaign]. He just turned 3 and it is nice to see him back the way he did it today. I think the race is going to set him up for future races well for sure. I mean, he was ready today. I worked him and he was doing everything so well and so easy. I had a lot of confidence in him today, but I think after this race after the long layoff, it’ll set him up good. He’s handled the kickback pretty good before, so I wasn’t afraid. He broke clean and just kept going forward. I kept him out, and he did the rest.”
Owner Mike Repole (Forte, 1st): “It’s special. Very special. Very special. You know, for a horse making his first start in four months against other horses who have already raced this year, he does it with so much confidence. It’s like everything you see – breaks well, sits well, moves well, looks great. He’s just checking all the boxes right now. He’s a pretty special horse right now.”
Kentucky Derby – “It’s always been the dream. Dream big, dream bigger. It’s a good feeling right now.”
Trainer Bill Mott (Rocket Can, 2nd; Shadow Dragon, 5th): “[Rocket Can] ran big. He was a little sharp leaving there. He broke awfully sharp. He was a little geared up in the post parade. He was a little more wound up than I actually like to see him. I was hoping he wouldn’t get too excited, but he still looked like he ran his race. He looked like he held on well. He broke sharp, in good position, was tactical and ran well.”
Jockey Junior Alvarado (Rocket Can, 2nd): “It was a good trip. I ended up where I wanted to be. The only thing was on the backside we were putting a little bit of pressure. From 24 [seconds] the first part we had to speed it up to 23 the second quarter. Normally we do that the other way around, but he was there. Every time I ride him, he’s a different horse in the post parade, a different dimension. We’re trying to figure it out. I just think he hasn’t matured yet. He comes here and he’s very playful. I don’t think he’s put it all together. I take that as a good thing. Hopefully when he puts it together we can gain a few more lengths. He ran an unbelievable race. He was just second-best today.”
Trainer Dale Romans (Cyclone Mischief, 3rd): “It’s a relief to see him run hard like he did. He tried all the way. He did all the work. I’m very pleased with him. It’s a step forward. We’ll go to the next one. I told [jockey Tyler Gaffalione] to just let him go wherever he wanted. He’s a quick horse. He ran well today. Big improvement.”
Jockey Tyler Gaffalione (Cyclone Mischief, 3rd): “Last time I felt like to took too much away from him so today we had a little better post position and I wanted to be more forward. He broke like a rocket. He traveled great throughout and his ears were going back and forth down the backside. We just couldn’t match the winner today, but it was a big effort. It’s only his second start back off the layoff so he definitely has room to improve. We’ll see what happens down the road.”
Assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado Jr. (Mage, 4th): “We knew that it was a big task for him. The only thing that we’d change is the fact that he didn’t break very well from the gate. That always gives an advantage to the other horses. It’s just his second race. There’s nothing wrong about him. The main thing is he comes back good and we’ll decide what we’re going to do. We know we have a nice horse.”
Jockey Javier Castellano (Mage, 4th): “He didn’t break the first jump but we had a mle and a sixteenth to run. He got a good position. In the first turn he was a little wide but then on the backside he was right there behind those three horses going a good pace. The only horse that come from behind is Forte, the best horse in the country, by far. He came from behind and blew away the field. But if you analyze the race, all the first three horses that dictate the pace they were 2-3-4. I liked the way he ran. I’m not disappointed at all. It’s only his second start. It’s a big thing, first time two turns, no Lasix, a big step up in class. All the horses had run four, five, six times. He finished fourth. We confronted the best horses in the country and he’s going to move forward.”
Jockey Joel Rosario (Blazing Sevens, 8th): “He broke really well out of there. I couldn’t get in my position going into the first turn and after that he just kind of ran steady. It wasn’t his day today. It looked like he was there going into the first turn and going into the backside but it took him a little time to kind of get going.”
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