Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
When you’re hot, you’re hot.
Owner Mike Repole, a New York native, shed tears of joy after he took a financial stake in Mo Donegal in time to watch the colt and his filly Nest provide him with a one-two finish in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. He can look ahead to watching Nest as the 9-5 favorite in the $2 million Longines Distaff on Saturday.
By the time Nest goes to the post, Repole and co-owner Vincent Viola of St. Elias Stable may still be celebrating Forte’s rousing victory in the $2 million FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance on Friday at Keeneland.
Forte, masterfully trained by Todd Pletcher and patiently ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., staged a dramatic rally to overtake front-running Cave Rock by 1 ½ lengths and deny fellow Hall of Famer Bob Baffert what would have been a record-setting sixth triumph in the Juvenile.
Cave Rock had dominated his first three starts by a combined 16 ½ lengths. National Treasure, another Baffert trainee, finished a length and a half behind his stablemate in third with Blazing Sevens fourth for trainer Chad Brown. Forte completed the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:43.06 on a fast track on a gorgeous autumn afternoon.
It was the fourth win in five career starts for Forte, so named because the son of Violence was an imposing physical specimen when he was purchased for $110,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September yearling sale.
“When you give the name to a great horse,” Repole said, “it becomes a great name.”
The certain 2-year-old champion swept his third consecutive start after a three-length score in the slop in the Sept. 5 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and a taut neck decision against Loggins in the Oct. 8 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.
Pletcher believes the decision to run in the Futurity was pivotal. “He got that two-turn experience and it paid off,” he said. “He was much more professional.
“The last time, he made the lead pretty comfortably. But he got to waiting and laying on the horse next to him. So today, if we were lucky enough to get in position to get [the lead], we wanted to give ourselves plenty of space and not get too close to the horse next to him.”
Baffert thought Cave Rock, ridden by Juan Hernandez, showed some immaturity at a critical moment. “He didn’t switch leads until way late,” he noted. “He got tired and that other horse came running.”
Baffert is confident that Cave Rock will be formidable next season. “There is a reason why he won three in a row,” he said. “He’ll get a lot out of it.”
Said Hernandez: “My horse was very comfortable the whole way. When I asked him to go, he responded. We just got beat.”
Forte gives Repole, 53, new hope of securing an elusive Derby triumph after decades of investing heavily in racing. “It looks like he’s going to get better and better and better,” he said hopefully. Viola has sipped Derby champagne as part owner of Pletcher trainee Always Dreaming in 2017.
It must be noted that the Juvenile, the centerpiece of Future Stars Friday has not often been a harbinger for success in the run for the roses since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984. Only two Juvenile winners went on to capture the opening leg of the Triple Crown, Street Sense in 2006 and Nyquist in 2015.
Corniche, last year’s winner and the Eclipse champion for Baffert after sweeping all three of his starts as a 2-year-old, never made it to the spring classics. He made only one start after being transferred to Pletcher, struggling home a distant ninth in the July 31 Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. He was retired on Aug. 28 to be a stallion at Ashford Stud in 2023.
Repole knows firsthand how perilous the Road to the Derby can be. He was filled with hope when sensational Uncle Mo dazzled in the Juvenile en route to the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old. But he developed a mysterious illness ahead of the Kentucky Derby and a crestfallen Repole joined Pletcher the day before the nation’s premier race to announce that he would have to be scratched.
The overriding question is whether Repole can stay white hot into 2023. By his count, this was his eighth Grade 1 triumph since June.
“My whole family thinks you just show up and you win a Grade 1 and that’s normal,” Repole said. “People don’t win eight Grade 1s in their lifetime. People don’t win eight Grade 1s ever.
“I’m not fooled about how blessed I am that this is happening. And I don’t see how this could ever happen again. I’m just being honest with you, even though I did buy 100 yearlings. But that’s another story.”