Two months into the new year, and reigning champion juvenile male Forte still looms large in the pecking order of 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1) prospects. On Saturday, the Todd Pletcher trainee will make the first of what is expected to be two preps in advance of the Churchill Downs classic in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
The last race on a marathon, stakes-laden 14-race card, the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth will award Derby qualifying points of 50-20-15-10-5 to the respective top five finishers.
Forte, who won four of five starts last season, including the Hopeful (G1), Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), was installed the 7-5 morning line favorite, but could go off lower than that despite having to face nine rivals.
“He seems to be thriving right now,” Pletcher said. “I hope he can continue on that trajectory. We’re super-pleased with the way he’s coming into the race.
“Physically, he’s done well. He’s put on some weight. He’s always been a leggy colt, so I wouldn’t say he’s grown height-wise, but he has filled out. He’s a super intelligent colt, very easy to train, very straightforward. He’s very willing when you want him to be.”
If there’s a best time to take a stand against Forte, it might be in the Fountain of Youth. Short-priced favorites have taken it on the chin in the Fountain of the Youth over the past decade, including Forte’s sire, Violence, in 2013. The race has also proven hard to win by horses making their first start of the season.
Blazing Sevens was decisively beaten by Forte in the Hopeful and Breeders’ Cup, but turned in a nice effort to win the Champagne (G1) in between those two setbacks and might show more with maturity. Rocket Can and Shadow Dragon, the one-two finishers in last month’s Holy Bull (G3) for Bill Mott, will both have to come on from that performance, which was not among the best preps seen this year from a speed figure perspective.
Looking to rebound off modest efforts in the Holy Bull are fourth-place finisher Legacy Isle, who took a slow renewal of the Mucho Macho Man S. two back, and Cyclone Mischief, who retreated badly around the far turn as the 6-5 favorite following an impressive allowance win over a mile in his previous start.
Mage, a wire-to-wire winner of his debut over seven furlongs on Jan. 28, has plenty of upside, though his relative inexperience might prove too big a hurdle. General Jim stretches out for Shug McGaughey after taking the seven-furlong Swale (G3), in which he wore down the multiple stakes-winning Super Chow, though his troubled fourth in the Mucho Macho Man raises some class concerns.