Forte, Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. a Winning Combination on Kentucky Derby Trail

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Forte Irad Ortiz Jr. Fountain of Youth Stakes Florida Derby Gulfstream Park Kentucky Derby
Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard champion Forte after winning the 2023 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. has been honored four times as North America’s outstanding rider. Just 30 years old, he has won 17 Breeders’ Cup races, and last year the young jockey captured his second Belmont Stakes in piloting Mo Donegal to victory following his initial success with Creator in 2016.

The first two legs of the Triple Crown have eluded him, however, with his closest finish in the Preakness Stakes being a second from Midnight Bourbon in 2021 and his best placing in the Kentucky Derby a fourth from Improbable in 2019 upon the disqualification of Maximum Security for interference.

As the regular rider of early Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve favorite Forte, this year would appear to present an opportunity to fill that Derby void, and perhaps, too, in the Preakness, though his trainer, Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, typically bypasses the Preakness turnaround on two weeks rest unless his horse wins the Derby. Pletcher is a two-time Kentucky Derby winner.

But as with every Derby hopeful, everything must go right for Forte between now and the 1 1/4-mile classic May 6. A key step along the way comes April 1 when the 3-year-old races in the Curlin Florida Derby presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farms at Xalapa at Gulfstream Park.

The 1 1/8-mile race is one of two prep races on Saturday that are part of the domestic Road to the Kentucky Derby series, the other being the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. The two races offer qualifying points on a 100-40-30-20-10 scale to their top five finishers — not that Forte needs Derby points, the preference system Churchill Downs uses when the Derby is oversubscribed beyond its 20-horse field size. Already with 90 points, he is safely in the Derby.

It is the purse and the prestige that counts for Forte Saturday, and the use of the race as a steppingstone toward the run for the roses.

weekend Television schedule

Friday, March 31: 3-6:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Saturday, April 1: 1:30-8:30 p.m. on FS2; 6-7 p.m. on CNBC; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Sunday, April 2: 3-6 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on FanDuel TV

Gulfstream’s leading rider will be tasked with avoiding too much ground loss with Forte breaking from post-position 11 in the Florida Derby, which like other 1 1/8-mile races on the main track at the South Florida oval, begins with a short run to the first of two turns.

“He does everything I ask him. He’s always there for me,” said Ortiz, who has been aboard Forte for all of his six career starts, most recently in riding him to victory in the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream in the colt’s season debut.

Last year, Ortiz also rode Forte to capture a maiden race, the Hopeful Stakes, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, and the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA, all Grade 1 races. A fourth in the Sanford Stakes was the sole defeat for the son of Violence, who races for Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable.

In rallying from fifth to take the Fountain of Youth, Forte struck the front just inside the eighth pole, hitting the finish with his ears pricked.

“His mind is for sure changing,” Ortiz said of the champion 2-year-old male of 2022. “He’s doing things a little better. He doesn’t hesitate. He’s not like a 2-year-old anymore. He’s figured out what he needs to do, which makes it good for me.”

Forte had his game face on in the paddock when schooling at Gulfstream March 29, drawing praise from Pletcher and others who witnessed the colt prancing lightly on his feet.

St. Elias, Pletcher, and Ortiz look to win the Florida Derby again Saturday after teaming up with Known Agenda to win the race two years ago.

Their colt will need a little luck, both Saturday and down the road in the Kentucky Derby. Known Agenda was not so fortunate in Kentucky, at least not at the Derby post draw, landing the disadvantageous inside post in the random pill draw and ultimately finishing ninth.

Mo Donegal would also break from the dreaded one hole in the Derby for Pletcher, Ortiz, and owners Donegal Racing and Repole Stable. He settled for fifth.

Those runners were Derby contenders, though not standouts. By comparison, Forte has been a cut above many of the other Derby prospects to date.

Forte winning Fountain of Youth (Gulfstream Park/Coglianese photos)

The two colts that came closest to him in the Fountain of Youth that return in the Florida Derby, third-place Cyclone Mischief and fourth-place Mage, need to make up 5 3/4 lengths and 6 3/4 lengths, respectively.

Mage, coming off a trip in which he broke slowly and raced wide, would appear eligible for improvement under his new jockey, Luis Saez. The latter is riding Saturday in Florida rather than at Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby card.

Saez knows what winning the Kentucky Derby feels like, only to have it taken away in a stewards’ decision a short time later, having been on Maximum Security in 2019.

Angel of Empire, who Saez rode to win the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford at Fair Grounds, is among the Arkansas Derby headliners along with Reincarnate and Rocket Can. Flavien Prat rides Angel of Empire Saturday.

At 1 1/8 miles, the Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby will test the participants over a longer distance, though Ortiz has no doubts about his mount’s stamina.

“He can stay all day on his stride,” he said. “He has a turn of foot but he stays. He stays with that speed — that’s good on dirt.”

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