amNY at the Track | Forte looks like a should-be Kentucky Derby winner, as future odds drop

Forte winning Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga
Forte, shown winning the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in September 2022, is turning into a legitimate Kentucky Derby threat.
NYRA/Chelsea Durand

The best horse on the Kentucky Derby trail doesn’t always win the big race – which is why we say Forte is the should-be winner, not the certain winner, of this year’s Run for the Roses.

An impressive winner of the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes in his three-year-old debut, Forte – the Todd Pletcher-trained, champion juvenile colt – ran the way a classic champion should. With a confident Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard, Forte broke toward the rail, got a ground-saving trip all the way around the Gulfstream Park oval, made a four-wide bid for the lead at the top of the stretch and drew off with ease.

That effort made many horseplayers think Forte is a legitimate Derby threat, and your best chance to cash in on him might be in the Kentucky Derby future bet, with the fifth future pool now open.

As of noon on March 10, Forte was the 4-1 favorite in the future pool, besting the category of All Other Three-Year-Olds at 5-1. Those odds, and the Derby Day odds, might be far lower than 4-1 if Forte comes back on April 1 and wins the Florida Derby with similar ease.

But if history has taught us anything, a horse of Forte’s caliber doesn’t always get the garland of roses in the end.

You don’t even need to go back far in the history books. Last year, Epicenter entered the Kentucky Derby starting gate as clearly the best three-year-old, having won his prep races impressively at the Fair Grounds circuit in New Orleans.

But then came a massive 81-1 long shot in Rich Strike, who only made the Kentucky Derby field the day before the race when another horse scratched out of the race, and surged past Epicenter in the last 100 yards to win the roses.

On paper, however, it’s hard not to conclude Forte hasn’t solidified himself as the “should-be” horse – as in the should-be favorite and winner of this year’s Derby – at this point in the campaign, even as the “will win” question remains squarely in doubt.

First off, his first race off a long, three-month layoff following his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory was a solid, all-around performance. Ortiz tapped him with the whip just a couple of times at the top of the short stretch, just enough for Forte to power past the three other runners. Then Ortiz put the whip away and rode Forte out to the finish, saving energy for the next prep race, likely the April 1 Florida Derby.

The pace of the race also held up better than other Derby preps thus far. The second, third and fourth place finishers in the Fountain of Youth – Rocket Can, Cyclone Mischief and Mage – were in the lead pack from the start of the race, an indication that Forte wasn’t merely taking advantage of a collapse in speed.

As a result, Forte got a Beyer speed figure of 98 – the second-highest of any Derby prep winner still in training this year (Practical Move, who won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 4, got a 100 Beyer figure; he’s the 8-1 third choice in the future pool).

The connections, while not always directly tied to a horse’s quality, are solid nonetheless. Ortiz is one of the best jockeys in America, having won his fourth Eclipse Award this year. Pletcher has won the Derby twice before with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. And Forte is partly owned by Mike Repole, a Queens native who has one of the largest stables in the country, and won the Belmont Stakes last year with Mo Donegal.

The stars seem to be aligning for Forte at this point in the campaign. He’s clearly the best horse of his generation, has the right jockey and trainer, and few competitors who can legitimately perform at his level.

Then again, we’ll only know for certain two minutes after the Kentucky Derby gates fly open on May 6 whether the should-be winner is the sure thing.

Gotham Stakes recap: Slip Mahoney has upside in defeat

Well, we were right about one thing – last Saturday’s Gotham Stakes was indeed another Derby prep in which a hot early pace fell apart in the stretch, with longshots surging to claim the top prize.

We just weren’t right about General Banker, who once again hit the board (3rd) and continued to prove he’s consistently in the money at Aqueduct. But winning it all was Raise Cain, a shipper from Turfway Park who blew past the tiring frontrunners at the eighth pole, under jockey Jose Lezcano, and drew off with a stunning kick.

It was easy to write Raise Cain off; his most previous performance was a 5th place showing in the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park that was as mediocre as it gets. But the switch to a dirt track from a synthetic oval sometimes works wonders for a horse, as Raise Cain proved.

We need to see one more big race out of Raise Cain before calling him a legit contender. Let’s see him win on a fast track, maybe the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, before giving him serious consideration.

The second-place finisher in the Gotham, Slip Mahoney, flashed another dimension and could be a runner to watch going forward. Trained by Brad Cox, Slip Mahoney – who came into the Gotham off a front-running score last out – wound up being shuffled to the back of the field in the first half-mile of the one-turn race.

But under jockey Trevor McCarthy, Slip Mahoney overcame the sudden change in tactics, weaved his way through the field and ran way off the rail in the last quarter mile to catch General Banker for the place spot. 

Slip Mahoney will need to take a big step forward in his next prep race, but he’s certainly got potential and room to improve.

And as for General Banker, he continues to get the money and the points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field. He always seems to be in the wrong race at the right time – taking advantage of collapsing paces. 

General Banker is probably pointed to the Wood Memorial, and you’d be wise to keep him in your exotic bets. He’ll likely punch above his weight, hit the board again and punch a ticket to Louisville to be a Derby also-ran. 

As for Eyeing Clover, who finished fourth, the Gotham proved he’s a sprinter for sure. Keep an eye on him to turn back in distance.

Odds via Churchill Downs, as of noon on March 10, 2023