The numbers speak for themselves. Horses trained by Todd Pletcher have earned more purse money (over $455 million) than those trained by any other person in the history of thoroughbred racing. He has won with an impressive 23% of his starters, and 52% have finished first, second or third.
When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Pletcher becomes a mere mortal. From 62 career starters, he has won the race twice, with two seconds, and four horses who finished 3rd. Many of Pletcher’s Derby horses were longshots who were in the race primarily so their owners could have a horse in America’s biggest race. His two Derby winners, while they were reasonably backed at the windows, were far from odds-on favorites. When Super Saver won in 2010, he paid $18.00 for a $2 win ticket. Always Dreaming, his 2017 winner, was a very lukewarm favorite who returned $11.40 to win. Many racing fans are used to seeing Pletcher’s horses win at short odds, primarily in New York and Florida. They might be shocked to find out that when Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby, he was the shortest-odds horse that Pletcher had ever saddled in the Kentucky Derby, despite having odds just under 5-1.
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This Saturday, he will saddle Forte in the Florida Derby. Forte will enter the race on a four-race win streak, with those wins coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He is a 4/5 morning line favorite, and if he wins the race, he should move forward to Louisville as a very strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, he would be the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever had in the race, but that almost wasn’t the case.
In 2010, we know that Pletcher scored a mild upset in the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He was definitely not the best three-year-old in Pletcher’s barn. That year, he had a horse named Eskendereya, who seemed as unbeatable as Forte does now. He was set to enter the Derby off a three-race win streak. That streak included an 8 ½ length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and a 9 ¾ length win in the Wood Memorial. The Pletcher barn was devastated when Eskendereya suffered a career-ending leg injury in training one week before the Kentucky Derby. So, instead of saddling the big favorite in the race, he took his shot with four other horses. As the chart tells us, Super Saver benefitted from a rail-skimming ride by Calvin Borel and gave Pletcher his first Derby winner.
As far as I am concerned, any discussion of Forte and the Florida Derby should begin with the concept of professionalism in a racehorse. In one respect you can call him more professional than (dare I say?) Secretariat. Big Red was brilliant, and he showed the ability to win on the engine and from off the pace. Forte’s three career races around two turns, however, are a virtual carbon copy of each other.
As a two-year-old, in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, he was in fifth place after six furlongs, sitting 2 ½ lengths off the lead, and he went on to win by a neck. That race set him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Juvenile, he was again in fifth after six furlongs, sitting four lengths off the lead before he went on to win by 1 ½ lengths. It’s been said that race horses mature the most between ages two and three, and Forte’s only race this year showed that maturity. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he was in fourth after six furlongs, sitting about two lengths off the lead, and then he blew by the field, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths.
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This concept of professionalism in a racehorse is based in part on how well the game plan of the trainer is executed by the horse. Forte is a horse that has clearly used his fast cruising speed and his ability to relax off the pace to his advantage. Looking at those three wins he posted around two turns, they show that Forte’s natural ability allows him to idle like a Cadillac behind front-runners, and he has a growing ability to pass his competition on the far turn and power through the stretch on his way to victory. The Pletcher game plan, nurtured through the experience of 62 starts in America’s most important race, has been very convincing thus far.
Working in Forte’s favor even more is the fact that there are several horses in the race who tend to run on the front end, which should set up jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to make Forte’s signature move to the lead as the front-runners start to tire. Skeptics might point to Forte’s journey from the #11 post as a reason to think he might have a problem here, but the fact that he relaxes in races and has a high cruising speed should allow Ortiz to get a mid-pack position to pounce from.
As for the rest of the field, the two most likely to finish underneath Forte in exotic wagers are Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief. Fort Bragg is a horse who sold for $700,000 as a yearling. He was formerly trained by Bob Baffert and has been transferred to the care of Tim Yakteen. He should be near the front end early and is likely to have the class to last longer that some of the other forwardly-placed runners. Another who has a good chance to hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief. He has raced against some of the top horses of his age group and was third to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by nearly 6 lengths. Although he was on the lead in that race, I expect him to sit a couple of lengths off the pace here. There are two longer-priced entries here that could hit the board to fill out some tickets. They are the lightly-raced Mage (fourth in the Fountain of Youth with a troubled trip) and West Coast Cowboy, who has tried hard in all three career races and is 20-1 on the morning line.
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For those who think they might be able to beat Forte, consider Todd Pletcher’s record in the Florida Derby. He is the leading trainer in the history of the race with six wins, and five of those have been in the last nine years.
If there is a theme to the Derby prep season thus far, it is Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher. In addition to Forte, he trains Kingsbarns, the front-running winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice. Tapit Trice, who will run in the Blue Grass Stakes on NBC a week from Saturday, is an intriguing horse who won the Tampa Bay Derby with come-from-behind style. As talented as Forte is, we don’t know how talented Tapit Trice can be, as he seems to mature more with each start. At Tampa Bay, he was eighth in the middle of the stretch and got home to win by an easy two lengths. He is an 8-1 second choice in the most recent Derby futures pool, with Forte favored at 3-1.
It is always fascinating when the early Derby favorite has his final prep race. We’ll have to sit back and watch on Saturday to determine whether Forte will continue his dominance or if he will hit a bump in the road. His talent and his ability to duplicate his running style from race to race lead me to think that his growth and maturity will continue to be on display in the Florida Derby, and he’ll advance to Kentucky a huge favorite for America’s biggest race.
How to Watch the Florida Derby
- Date: Saturday, April 1st
- Time: 6pm ET
- TV Network: CNBC
- Streaming: Peacock
When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?
The 149th Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC and Peacock.