(Forte wins the G2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday / Angelo Lieto Photo & Courtesy of NYRA)

From the NYRA Media Team / Ryan Martin:

Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s reigning Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Forte came out on the winning end of both a tight photo finish and a stewards inquiry to take the Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy presented by DK Horse, a nine-furlong main track test for sophomores, at Saratoga Race Course.

Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, the talented Forte added blinkers for the first time in the afternoon and engaged in a dramatic stretch duel in between the Brad Cox-trained duo of Angel of Empire and pacesetter Saudi Crown and narrowly defeated his rivals for his first win since the Grade 1 Florida Derby in April at Gulfstream Park.

“He loves the game,” said Pletcher, who won a record-extending seventh Jim Dandy. “He’s always been that way, he’s always trained super. He’s very competitive in the afternoons, he’s an intelligent horse.”

Ridden to victory by Irad Ortiz, Jr., Forte cleanly exited post 2 in the five-horse field and maintained inside stalking position while matching strides with Angel of Empire to his outside, the pair battling for second position as Saudi Crown rushed up to lead through an opening quarter-mile in 23.93 seconds and the half-mile in 48.10 over the sloppy and sealed main track.

With the running order unchanged down the backside, Ortiz, Jr. preserved his inside position into the turn as Saudi Crown kept clear at the helm two-wide off the rail. Angel of Empire remained within striking range in the center of the course, looming large as Forte needed room for an outside bid alongside Saudi Crown after three-quarters in 1:12.30. Ortiz, Jr. opted to angle Forte out late in the turn and brushed with Angel of Empire at the top of the lane as Forte forged a path towards a resolute Saudi Crown, who dug in to find more under Florent Geroux in the final sixteenth.

“I was close to the rail. The horse in front stayed there. I had a chance to hit the clear, I did. As soon as I hit the clear, my horse go forward,” Ortiz, Jr. said.

Forte gained ground with every stride with Angel of Empire just off his flank coming down to the final strides before the wire, but Forte made one final push late to get his nose down over a drifting Saudi Crown and completed the course in 1:49.61. Angel of Empire finished a half-length back of Saudi Crown with Disarm and the Cox-trained Hit Show, who bobbled at the start, completing the order of finish.

A steward’s inquiry into the stretch run resulted in no change to the order of finish.

Ortiz, Jr., aboard for each of Forte’s lifetime outings, said some late drifting by Saudi Crown caused him to have to take Forte wider than he had anticipated.

“The horse in front, I don’t know if he see something, but he was getting out bad,” said Ortiz, Jr. “He kept coming out, coming out, but I’m on his heels. It was hard to stop at the moment of the race. I was right there. I was close to making the lead. He kept coming out and Flo [Geroux] tried to do his best and I have to keep riding. At the same time, I have the other horse, finally we get straight and he corrects his horse and we get to the wire and thank God, we get a head in front at the end.”

Three of Forte’s four challengers were trained by two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, which Pletcher said made him anticipate a heated stretch run.

“You’re the one with a target on you back and you’ve got another stable with three horses in there. We were expecting some race tactics,” Pletcher said. “I think once he [Forte] was able to get himself in the clear and the horse on the lead kept drifting out, out, out and maybe into the eight path at one point. Irad said that compromised him a little bit from moving forward sooner.”

Forte entered from a rallying runner-up effort to Arcangelo in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 10 at Belmont Park, his first start back off 10-week’s rest after scratching the morning of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby due to a bruised foot. Forte had been tabbed the morning-line Derby favorite after a spring campaign that saw him score in Gulfstream Park’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Pletcher, who had added blinkers for Forte’s final work in prep for the Jim Dandy last Saturday, said he noticed the son of Violence was more involved earlier in the race with the equipment change.

“Irad said he thought [the blinkers] left him pretty focused and he wasn’t too headstrong with them,” said Pletcher. “I think they made a positive change without being overwhelming. His record is fantastic without blinkers, but we just felt like the middle of the turn in the Belmont compromised his chances of winning. In the Florida Derby, he did the same thing but he was able to overcome it. We felt like this was the race to give them a try.”

The Jim Dandy is Forte’s second graded coup at the Spa, adding to a win in last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful as part of a Championship season that included Grade 1 wins in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland.

Bred in Kentucky by South Gate Farm, Forte banked $275,000 in victory and improved his lifetime record to 9-7-1-0. He returned $3.50 for a $2 win ticket.

Cox, who won the 2021 Jim Dandy with Essential Quality, said he was pleased with each of his runners.

“I’m very proud of the effort,” said Cox. “He’s [Saudi Crown] a Grade 1 horse in the future. Angel of Empire ran well as well. Hit Show missed the break a little bit and it cost him a little bit, I think.”

Cox added that the dynamics of the race were altered slightly when Hit Show, who often races prominently, stumbled at the break.

“I would probably have switched Hit Show and Angel of Empire based on form and knowing them and where they would have ended up, but I don’t know if would have changed anything today,” said Cox.

The Jim Dandy is the traditional local prep for the 10-furlong Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers on August 26, a race that Pletcher had indicated is the main summer goal for Forte.

While the Travers is the next likely stop for Forte, Cox said Saudi Crown will instead target the Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on September 23 at Parx Racing traveling nine furlongs.

“We got beat by a Champion today. Our colt, he’s very good. All three of them are good, but Saudi Crown has a tremendous amount of upside,” Cox said. “I doubt you’ll see him here going a mile and a quarter in four weeks; the PA Derby is what we’re going to zero in on and try to get there.”

Cox said Angel of Empire could potentially target the Travers next, while plans for Hit Show will be determined in the near future.

Live racing resumes Sunday at Saratoga with a 10-race card, featuring the Grade 2, $250,000 Bowling Green in Race 9. First post is 1:10 p.m. Eastern.

Saratoga Live will present live coverage and analysis of the Saratoga Race Course summer meet on the networks of FOX Sports. For the broadcast schedule and channel finder, visit https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/tv-schedule/.