(Forte / Photos by Coady Photography)
We are now embarking on a new “feature” that we hope to continue each Monday for the remainder of 2023. We are calling it “McLean’s Monday Musings & Muck Pit.”
It’s some of our thoughts and reflections about what has happened in the horse world over the past weekend, and, perhaps over the past week. Some are good thoughts. Some may be afterthoughts. Some may call them our “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” thoughts. And, yes, some will be our figurative “pitch fork tosses” into the proverbial “Muck Pit.”
So, without further adieu, here’s our next few pitches (and some fork):
Forte Is Front & Center:
This Saturday, 2022 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Forte — trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher — will make his 2023 debut in the G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and, perhaps, a major stride towards the 149th Kentucky Derby.
The 3YO son of Violence has made the starting gate 5 times in his youthful career, to date. He has returned to the winner’s circle after 4 of those efforts. The only miscue came in the second career start — the G3 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga last July — when he got hung up wide and ran a non-conformational 4th to a very nice colt named Mo Strike. Mo(re) on him a bit later.
After that, though, Pletcher had his pupil primed.
A win in the G1 Hopeful Stakes at 7 furlongs and at Saratoga
A win in the G1 Breeders’ Futurity at 11/16-miles at Keeneland — despite what appeared to be interference from rider Irad Ortiz on the rail-running Loggins in the final stages.
And, a win in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over the same track in Lexington and the same distance. No sweat.
Now, the time has come to begin anew, and finish what many hope that the colt started a year ago — a run to the Kentucky Derby.
Some times, the best 2YOs go on to become some of the best 3YOs, too.
Some times, though, they do not.
You truly never know, for sure, until they have make the leap; make the gate; make the race.
If you look at Forte, he has “the look” of a colt who should be able to easily adjust to his 3YO season and the longer distance races that are now staring him through the bridle and the turning pages of the calendar.
He’s physical enough. He’s strong, without question. He has demonstrated ability at two turns. And, his stalking ability gives him flexibility and trip alternatives.
In short, he looks the part.
But before we go crowning a Triple Crown championship on the first weekend in March, just consider one thing.
Looks don’t count. Wins and good health are about the only things that do.
You see, Forte’s daddy is a stallion named Violence. As a 2-year-old, the son of Medaglia d’Oro was brilliant, too. Maybe just as brilliant as his best son, to date.
In 2012, Violence made 3 starts. He won them all — staring with a 7-furlong maiden victory at Saratoga and finishing with a victory in the G1 CashCall Futurity at old Hollywood Park. That final race of the season came at 11/16-miles, too.
In 2013, Violence was trained by Todd Pletcher, too. And, he was one of the trainer’s best young runners of his day.
But in 2013, when he should have been working his own way toward celebrity and stardom, Violence made only one start. He ran 2nd to eventual Kentucky Derby winner Orb — a horse that Violence had defeated in his career debut, mind you. He was 2nd in the G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes — the same race that Forte will run in this coming Saturday.
Here’s a brief description of how that race went, according to a report by Jack Shinar in the “Blood-Horse” magazine on Feb. 23, 2013:
“Violence started as the 3/5 odds-on favorite chased the pace, eased out to rally three wide leaving the far turn and opened a clear lead in the stretch, then responded when Orb moved to the fore late and held on well while being beaten by half-a-length on to the wire in a time of 1:42.24 for the 11⁄16-mile distance. Violence, who spotted the winner six pounds while carrying top weight of 122 pounds.
At that time, Pletcher said:
“We ended up being pretty close to a hot pace and as he tends to do, when he made the lead he kind of idles a little bit,” Pletcher said of Violence. “His last race he did kind of the same thing where he waited on horses. You could see Orb coming with that long, sustained run and I think Violence was able to dig in pretty well actually in the stretch and we just came out on the short end.”
As fate would have it, that was the last race of Violence’s career. A week after the Fountain of Youth, the news came down and out. It was announced that Violence had sustained a fracture to his right front medial sesamoid and had been retired from racing.
Such is racing. Such is the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” which has been littered with stories of failure and ruin. Such is the pain and agony of dreaming too early of grandeur and planning for the Kentucky Derby too prematurely.
This Saturday, Todd Pletcher will return to Gulfstream Park and to the Fountain of Youth with one of the best sons who Violence has ever produced.
This Saturday, Forte may finally give his father the win in the Fountain of Youth that many thought belonged to the great Violence.
This Saturday, Forte may take the gigantic stride to the “First Saturday in May,” that many thought that Violence would romp towards, as well.
This Saturday, both Pletcher and Violence may get some redemption.
It will not come easily. Nothing ever does on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.”
But a win on Saturday would be a heckuva story that could lead to a fairy-tale end at Churchill Downs in just a few weeks.
Such is racing, too. Such is the dream of the Kentucky Derby. Such is the reason why we all chase those dreams.
Mo Strike Is Back in Light Training:
Mo Strike, a handsome son of Uncle Mo and trained by Brad Cox, has the lone distinction of beating the 2YO Champ Forte. That came last July in the G3 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga.
But Mo Strike’s run of good fortune and luck didn’t last much longer than that 6-furlong race. The next time out, in the G1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, Mo Strike ran a well-beaten and distant 4th over a sloppy and messy Saratoga strip and in a return match with Forte.
Mo Strike, who Cox touted to us early last Summer and who certainly lived up to his coach’s touts in his first two races, has been sidelined from racing ever since the Hopeful.
But hope does Spring eternal. Especially this Spring.
We contacted Cox on Monday night and found out that the beautiful bay is looking better and better each day. Mo Strike has returned to action.
“He just started back training,” Cox texted on Monday night when asked about the status of Mo Strike.
It probably is way too much to ask the colt to get ready for any major races leading to this year’s Kentucky Derby, but it sure would be fun to see Mo Strike return to his glory days and match strides with Forte sometime down the road. It may be the next rivalry that the sport always needs and always cherishes.
Turfway Park Has New Finish Line Cameras — Yay:
After a flurry of close, photo finishes the past couple of weeks — all of which seemed to catch the eye and fury of racing fans, serious handicappers, and spectators, alike — Turfway Park has installed a series of new cameras to give the viewing audience a better angle and a truer view of the horses as they cross the finish line.
And, without a doubt, the new cameras and the slow-motion video of the gallop out now gives the simulcasting and internet audience a much better view of which horses hit the finish line first at the most critical moment of the race.
A day or so after the initial blow-ups and Twitter angst, I contacted Churchill Downs’ Director of Racing, Gary Palmisano, and asked what the track had in mind to fix the problems and issues. He texted me back immediately and said:
“Will update you when we have it figured out. Have some folks going out there (immediately) to look at an option or two. Definitely plans to fix…Trying to devise something for a fix.”
They devised a fix. They got a fix.
Say what you want about Churchill Downs, which owns Turfway Park, but you must give Palmisano and the track’s entire leadership team credit and applause for listening to their customers (who were rather rowdy in their criticism of the previous finish line views) and fixing the problem quickly and effectively.
Muck Pit: KY Stewards Should Suspend Stidham Employee Indefinitely
Don’t know if you watched Turfway Park much last week, but if you did you unfortunately had to witness a gross, ugly and unforgivable sin in the paddock.
A groom / employee for trainer Michael Stidham rough-housed a horse in full view of the audience in attendance and those watching the video feed on either TV or the on-line broadcast.
Granted, the horse was acting a bit immature, overly-excited and zealous in the paddock and then, finally, in the saddling stall.
Granted, the horse was a bit uncontrollable and anxious.
Granted, it was a tough situation.
But…come on, man.
After yanking the horse’s shank and bridle in a rather forceful twist, the employee then slapped the horse on the side of the neck with a boxer’s punch. He shoved the horse towards the back of the saddling stall. He continued to twist the head and neck.
If anyone thinks that these are the proper actions to take to either calm a horse, or to attempt to better control one?
It was stupid. It was awful. And, it was counterproductive, if not harmful.
To make matters worse?
All of the action was caught on video, and it didn’t take long for the video to make its’ way onto Twitter and other social media platforms.
The entire industry has taken serious and protracted efforts to ensure that we all take better care of our our equine athletes. Those that are racing. Those that may be retiring from racing. And, all horses in-between. We must ensure health and well-being. Always. No exceptions. None.
The horse deserves no less.
And, those actions last week were a disgrace to all of us who love both the sport and the horses that run to love and love to run. An absolute disgrace.
Later that night, the trainer — Michael Stidham — issued the following press release:
“Regarding the actions taken by one of my employees before the 4th race on Feb. 23 at Turfway Park: The Michael Stidham Racing Stable condemns any mistreatment or abuse of horses in any form. This type of behavior, for any reason, is unacceptable in my stable and inexcusable.
“The actions taken by this trusted employee of more than 20 years are entirely out of character. He has been reprimanded and reminded that any mistreatment of any horse under my care is unacceptable and abhorrent. Accountability in our sport is absolutely necessary and I take complete responsibility for this incident.
“I apologize to the racing public, Turfway Park and all affected parties. I will speak to Turfway Park stewards and accept any action taken against my stable or my employee. We pride ourselves on providing the best care possible for our horses and will reemphasize stable standards after this regrettable incident.”
Quite honestly, that is a great response. In fact, if Bob Baffert had taken a similar approach after Medina Spirit tested positive following the infamous Kentucky Derby, then the entire issue and problem probably would have gone away years ago.
Thank you, Michael Stidham for standing up and taking responsibility. Thank you.
But the statement is not enough. It just isn’t enough.
In our view…
This “employee” should be suspended immediately. If not by the trainer, then by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. And, this “employee” should be denied access to any licensed facility premises.
This “employee” should be granted or demanded to appear at a hearing, and should be asked to explain his actions.
This “employee” should be reprimanded, fined, and required to undergo both anger management counseling, but also a mandatory horsemanship program by a trained equine professional on how to properly manage a horse’s behavior in these high-stress situations.
And, only after finishing all of these requirements, should this “employee” be considered for reinstatement by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Not granted his license again, mind you. Considered for reinstatement.
In my view, the “employee” must demonstrate both remorse and demonstrate a change of behavior and demeanor.
There is no place for this type of assault on the racetrack — whether it applies to a human or an horse.
Absolutely. No. Place.
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