Forte Wins Florida Derby Earning Favorite Kentucky Derby Status

Get the full recap of the Florida Derby with Dr. Gregory Beroza, aka HorseDoc ‘Talking Horses.’ Also, don’t miss out on the great discussion of what this means for the upcoming Kentucky Derby

Forte at the wire. Photo by NThomas

Forte entered the Florida Derby as the heavy favorite against a highly contested, multi-talented group of competitors. At stake was a $1 Million Dollar Purse plus winning qualifying points necessary for entry into the impending historic $2.25 Million Dollar Kentucky Derby to be contested on Saturday, May 6th.

Forte had previously won the Fountain of Youth Stake, also contested at Gulfstream Park Racetrack. While he was then and still remains the substantial odds-on betting favorite, Forte drew the 11th position in a 12 horse Florida Derby. Of even greater concern was that the Gulfstream Park racetrack is so designed that the first turn for its 1-1/8th mile Derby race was only a short distance from its starting gate. Forte, not known to be an early speed horse, would have to first settle into the pack at the start of the race. If he could not break free or if he had to swing too far to the outside to afford an opportunity for a strong finish, his chances for a win would be significantly diminished. The draw for a starting post-position was strictly by lottery and merely a poor luck event.

Florida Derby Starting Gate. Photo by ACoglianese

Prior to the official entry date commitment which was before the entry gate draw, many highly qualified competitors either chose to run a less competitive qualifying race out-of-town, or to wait to play their entry hand after sizing up the anticipated entries at Gulfstream and other competitive out-of-town racetracks. This was to avoid what was an assumed easy win for the highly regarded Forte. Several horses entered with the primary hopes of winning a lucrative second or third place and to accumulate enough points to qualify for running in next month’s Kentucky Derby. Several unexpected long-shot horses with substantial potential entered merely for a chance to win significant purse money and for a shot at upsetting Forte in what was initially anticipated to be a short field.

Unexpectedly, the final roster of horses entered was completely filled, with additional potential substitute entries available should the need arise. This mandated a full starting gate of 12 contestants. As later explained by HOF Trainer of Forte Todd Pletcher, this situation complicated his game plan in that there was little experience with the running styles of several of the potentially viable long-shot entries. Forte, with a perceived best chance for a win at 4-5 odds, drew the 11th post-position. The odds for any horse winning the Florida Derby from a far outside post-position were historically dismal.

Forte with trainer Todd Pletcher. Photo by GBeroza

Fort Bragg was the 2nd place betting choice at 5-1 odds drew the 10th post-position. Dubyuhnell was the 3rd place betting choice at 6-1 odds drew the 12th post-position. Cyclone Mischief was the 4th place betting choice at 10-1 odds drew the 4th post-position. The remainder of the horses entered (the ‘longer-shots’ based upon betting odds of 20 or 30-1) drew the inside posts. The only exception was Mage as the 5th place betting choice at 10-1 odds drawing a 4th post-position.

The Florida Derby was a highly contested race and started from the gate with Forte toward the back of the pack along with Mage. Several of the horses led by Fort Bragg used their early speed and led the horses throughout three-quarters of the 1-1/8th mile race. While there was typical jockeying for position during the early phase of the race, it wasn’t until the last turn immediately before the final stretch that the horses bitterly fought for the lead. Mage jumped to take an early lead from Forte into the final stretch. Trainer Todd Pletcher and co-owner Mike Repole believed with only 1/8th mile remaining, Forte would have to settle for a second or third place finish. Co-owner Vincent Viola commented that jockey Irad Ortiz ,Jr. skillfully seemed to “manufacture needed lengths” to make up lost ground and allow a potential winning finish.

Entering the final final turn. Photo by NThomas

After a seemingly impossible win, Forte dug in and found ‘another gear’ to grind out his win by two lengths. The final order of finish along with points acquired to be eligible to compete in the 20 horse field of the Kentucky Derby is as follows:

1st) Forte gained 100 bonus points for a current total of 190 points

2nd) Mage gained 40 bonus points for a current total of 50 points

3rd) Cyclone Mischief gained 30 bonus points for a current total of 45 points

4th) Mr. Ripple gained 20 bonus points for a current total of 20 points

5th) Fort Bragg gained 10 bonus points for a current total of 15 points

Each year the number of points earned in qualifying Stakes races, along with other well-calculated factors indicating the prominent racing ability of each horse whose entry is under consideration, are defined to create a list of eligible horses based on earned credentials. Generally a combined score of 40 is necessary and any scores less than that won’t even be in contention. However, this year that number may be elevated so that it is fair to say that 50 points is a given. There are currently many horses already in the 40 point category so not all of them will make the cut. Additionally, not all eligible horses hold up physically to the grind to get to this point and may no longer be sound enough to enter the Kentucky Derby, regardless of their point score.

Forte, along with a few other superstar horses already had enough eligible points prior to the current big point races immediately before the Kentucky Derby. However, these horses need some form of competition leading up to the Kentucky Derby to keep them competitively fit and at the top of their game. These calculated risks can be compared to high-stakes chess matches in both qualifying and competing in a race that is extremely lucrative. Also, a win in the Kentucky Derby creates potential to compete in the additional two Triple Crown races ie the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Racing titles and lucrative breeding opportunities are linked to a Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown win.

Forte entering the paddock before the race. Photo by GBeroza

To fill the 20 eligible Kentucky Derby spots, there are currently 12 probable shoe-in horses with 50 or more points with Todd Pletcher having three of those entries, and Forte being in the #1 spot. There are another three probable horses with 45 points, and there are four others having earned 40 points being in the questionably eligible category. Each maintains their eligibility into the associated Triple Crown races. There remain four more races in which a horse could increase their point standing.

While Forte has an amazing pre-race record and he is the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, can he accomplish that feat? The Derby has a uniquely large field of 20 of the world’s best horses. There are horses that compete in Europe and the mid-East that will also qualify to be in the Final 20. All are deserving of their racing opportunity and racing luck can be a determining factor, especially in a highly contested large field of entrants. A misstep out of the starting gate, a poor post-position, getting locked inside a pack, or having to make a wide trip and thereby run further than the others could affect each horse’s race results.

At the Florida Derby post-race media conference, Todd Pletcher stated that due to his outside post-position and his having to travel wide before the final stretch, Forte had to run a greater distance than many of the other competitors. Pletcher asserted that “Forte ran 1-1/4 miles” instead of the official Florida Derby distance of 1-1/8 miles.

Forte Connections at the press conference. Photo by GBeroza

Like several of the historically great race horses, Forte, will continue to face unexpected obstacles, daunting competition, and highly favored odds. Could he continue to become one of the upper 1% of racing’s equine superstars is still only a matter of conjecture. A potential win in the Kentucky Derby and continued success in winning the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes is possible. Despite Pletcher’s extraordinary 150+ stakes winners, the hope for another Triple Crown winner in Forte would be this HOF Trainer’s crowning achievement! We sincerely wish Forte and his connections a safe and successful journey and hope to follow their progress.

Live race coverage, interviews with several of the trainers before and after the race, and the post-race media conference are contained within two short video and podcast broadcasts of the Florida Derby. They are available via:

Dr. Gregory A. Beroza, DVM, DACVS, DABVP has been a practicing veterinarian and consultant for 42 years; and HorseDoc® ‘Talking Horses’® media host, author, and consultant since 2007. Dr. Beroza is a multimedia host and broadcasts his productions, including a new Podcast, via his WuzUpDoc Media website: He can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other social media sources.

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