(Forte / Photos by Coady Photography)

From the Gulfstream Park Media Team:

Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte will seek to cement his standing as the top-rated Triple Crown candidate in the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa next Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

The 2022 juvenile champion, who drew Post 11, has been installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite in a field of a dozen 3-year-olds entered in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, which will headline a 14-race program with 10 stakes, including five graded races, worth $2.375 million in purses. The 14-race Florida Derby program with a first-race post time of 11:30 a.m. will offer a $1 million guaranteed Late Pick 5 pool and a $750,000 guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool.

If all 12 entries start, the Florida Derby field will be the largest since Big Brown beat 11 rivals in 2008.

Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Forte established himself as a clear early favorite for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1) when he made an auspicious 2023 debut in the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park. The son of Violence, who had won three consecutive Grade 1 races to finish his 2022 championship season, raced between horses while rating off the early pace before advancing along the backstretch, swinging four-wide into the stretch and drawing away to a 4 ½-length victory under Irad Ortiz Jr.

“The Fountain of Youth couldn’t have gone any better for us,” Pletcher said. “When Irad and I spoke before the race we kind of had a certain plan in mind and sort of had laid out where we hoped he would be. As you know a lot of times when the gate opens things can change and you have to be prepared to adjust to that, but really the race unfolded almost exactly the way we thought it would, and we were in exactly the position we hoped we would be. The real key is when called upon, he was there.”

Forte won four of five starts during his championship juvenile season that was launched with a 7 ¾-length victory at Belmont Park last May. After finishing fourth in the six-furlong Sanford (G2), he rallied from off the pace to win the seven-furlong Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga. He polished off a stellar campaign with a pair of off-the-pace scores around two turns in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

Ortiz has been aboard Forte for all six career starts and has been named to return to the saddle for the Florida Derby.

“Irad’s gotten to know the colt really well. He’s rode him in every start, and he’s also worked him quite a few times. I think part of what we’ve been trying to do in the mornings is sort of replicate his running style, sitting off a horse just a little bit and then teaching him to finish up and kind of stay focused,” Pletcher said. “As impressively as he’s won a couple of these races, he’s kind of come to the wire with his ears up taking everything in. Obviously, as these races get a little more difficult, he’ll need to stay focused.”

Pletcher has saddled a record six Florida Derby winners; Scat Daddy, (2007), Constitution (2014), Materiality (2015), Always Dreaming (2017), Audible (2018) and Known Agenda (2021).

“We love the positioning of the Florida Derby five weeks out. We’re happy about that. It gives us a little more time to stay in Florida before we ship north and hopefully have a couple more weeks of good weather before we need to move up,” Pletcher said. “The Florida Derby on its own is a very important race. Historically, it’s been a stallion-making race and an important Grade 1 on any horse’s resume.”

Having already secured sufficient points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Forte and Saturday’s rivals will be eligible for 200 qualifying points that will be shared by the first five finishers with 100 going to the winner. The 50-points that will go to the runner-up will likely be enough to earn a trip to Churchill Downs.

Albaugh Family Stables LLC and Castleton Lyons’ Cyclone Mischief, who rebounded from a disappointing effort in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull (G3) with a third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, is scheduled to return in the Florida Derby. The Dale Romans-trained son of Into Mischief set the pace into the stretch before being overtaken by Forte and Holy Bull winner Rocket Can, who finished second, 1 ¼ lengths ahead of him.

Cyclone Mischief, who was rated at 8-1 on the morning line after drawing Post 9, made a flashy 2023 debut with a 5 ¾-length romp in a mile optional claiming allowance Jan. 8 at Gulfstream.

Javier Castellano has the mount aboard the $450,000 purchase at the 2021 Keeneland September sale.

Romans saddled Shackleford, who was a photo-finish second behind Dialed In in the 2011 Florida Derby at 68-1. Shackleford went on to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby and win the Preakness Stakes (G1). Romans also finished second in the 2006 Florida Derby with Sharp Humor, who finished a half-length behind heavily favored Barbaro.

“It’s different with every horse. Shackleford, going into the race I would have been very excited to say we were going to run second. He was 60-1 if you remember. He was coming off a horrible race where we never figured out why he ran bad.” Romans said. “[Against] Barbaro, nobody ever expected to beat him, but we made him work for it. Both those races were pretty exciting.”

Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who saddled White Abarrio for a victory in last year’s Florida Derby, is represented in this year’s field by four longshots – Gentry Farms’ West Coast Cowboy, Legacy Racing LLC’s Mr. Ripple, C2 Racing Stable LLC and Stefania Farms LLC’s Nautical Star and C2 Racing Stable LLC’s Mr. Peeks.

West Coast Cowboy, a lightly raced son of West Coast trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., is set to make his first start since finishing third in the Holy Bull in his third career start.

“He ran very good in the Holy Bull, actually. He ran above expectations. He’s come back since then. He was supposed to go to Tampa, and he got sick, so he missed that, and we ended up here,” Joseph said. “He worked this morning. He actually worked as bad as he did going into the Holy Bull but he ran very good in the Holy Bull. He’s not a very flashy horse in the morning. Hopefully, if he can build on the Holy Bull, he should have a chance to maybe pick up a piece of it.”

Mr. Ripple is slated to make his stakes debut in the Florida Derby. The son of Dialed In made an eye-catching debut while winning by nine lengths at Gulfstream in October. He came back to finish third behind Cyclone Mischief in a Jan. 8 optional claiming allowance and second behind Classic Causeway in a March 2 optional claiming allowance.

“Mr. Ripple has run some decent races. He’s the kind of horse that maybe doesn’t have the best kick, but he’s a horse that’s competitive,” Joseph said. “If he could sit the right trip, he might be able to pick up a piece of it also.”

Nautical Star rallied from off the pace to graduate in his second career start last month, while Mr. Peeks is a maiden after two starts.

Sonny Leon has the mount on West Coast Cowboy, while Edgard Zayas is named on Mr. Ripple. Leonel Reyes has the call on Nautical Star and Edwin Gonzalez is named on Mr. Peeks.

OGMA Investments LLC, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing and CMNWLTH’s Mage, who showed a lot of grit while finishing fourth in the Fountain of Youth in only his second career start, is slated to return in the Florida Derby. The Gustavo Delgado-trained son off Good Magic, who experienced gate trouble, bumping and a wide trip in that race, had previously debuted with a 3 ¾-length victory Jan. 28 at Gulfstream.

Luis Saez been named to ride Mage, who was rated at 10-1 on the morning line after drawing Post 4.

SF Racing and partners’ Fort Bragg is scheduled to make his first start outside Southern California in the Florida Derby. Formerly trained by Bob Baffert and now conditioned by Tim Yakteen, the son of Tapit is coming off a fifth-place finish in the March 4 San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita in his 3-year-old debut. Fort Bragg, who was entered to run in Sunday’s Sunland Derby (G3), finished third in the Los Alamitos Futurity in his final 2022 start.

Joel Rosario has the call aboard the $700,000 purchase at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October sale. Fort Bragg, who will break one stall inside Forte in the starting gate, is rated second on the morning line at 5-1.

West Paces Racing LLC and Stonestreet Stables LLC’s Dubyuhnell will seek to rebound from a disappointing performance in the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs in his 3-year-old debut. The son of Good Magic, who finished sixth as the 2-1 favorite at Tampa, had concluded his 2-year-old campaign with a victory in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen (G2) over a sloppy Aqueduct main track.

The Danny Gargan trainee, who broke his maiden in the Aqueduct slop in his previous start, will be ridden by Jose Ortiz. Dubyuhnell, who drew Post 12, is rated third on the morning line at 6-1.

Juddmonte’s Jungfrau, Alex Andres LLC’s Il Miracolo, and Chester Bishop and Anthony Hinkson’s Shaq Diesel round out the field.

$1 Million Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa
1 Jungfrau Paco Lopez 20-1
2 West Coast Cowboy Sonny Leon 20-1
3 Shaq Diesel Miguel Vasquez 30-1
4 Mage Luis Saez 10-1
5 Mr. Peeks Edwin Gonzalez 30-1
6 Nautical Star Leonel Reyes 30-1
7 Il Miracolo Jesus Rios 30-1
8 Mr. Ripple Edgard Zayas 30-1
9 Cyclone Mischief Javier Castellano 8-1
10 Fort Bragg Joe Rosario 5-1
11 Forte Irad Ortiz Jr. 4-5
12 Dubyuhnell Jose Ortiz 6-1