Fountain of Youth: Champion Forte powerful in season opener

Congratulations to Virginia Connected Forte, The Early Kentucky Derby Favorite won the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He spent much of his youth at Breeder Amys Moore’s South Gate Farm in Virginia.

Originally published on on 3/4/2023, written by Mike Welsch

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Aside from a few anxious moments, perhaps, in the run down the backstretch, the $400,000 Fountain of Youth played out about as perfectly as trainer Todd Pletcher could have hoped for his leading Kentucky Derby candidate Forte.

The reigning juvenile champion rallying to a one-sided and very easy 4 1/2-length victory over Holy Bull winner Rocket Can in his first start since capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile four months earlier.

“The race pretty much unfolded the way we talked about and ended the way we’d hoped,” Pletcher said. “Watching the head on shot going down the backstretch I was thinking to myself ‘where’s he going to go’ when he was in behind those other horses. But it all worked out well.”

Photo Taken by Lauren King

Forte got pinched a bit after the start but quickly recovered to race well placed while saving ground on the opening bend under regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr.  Forte finally worked his way into the clear on the second turn after racing behind a wall of horses down the backstretch, and angled four wide to commence his rally approaching the quarter pole.

He stuck his head in front of the pacesetting Cyclone Mischief leaving the furlong marker, accelerated to suddenly open a commanding advantage, then was allowed to ease up some by Ortiz near the end.

Rocket Can prompted the pace from the outset, was set down hard between horses to continue willingly in the first flight turning for home, fighting on gamely to edge clear of Cyclone Mischief and be second best while no threat to the winner at the end.

Photo Taken by Ryan Thompson

Cyclone Mischief set the pace from arguably the deeper footing nearest the rail, could not resist Forte when challenged, and gradually weakened through the final furlong while bouncing back nicely from his disappointing performance as the favorite four weeks earlier in the Holy Bull.

Mage, who entered the Fountain of Youth with only one previous start, an easy seven-furlong maiden win, broke last then rushed to contention while wide around the clubhouse turn. The promising youngster forced the issue three wide into the stretch, lugged in and checked briefly behind Rocket Can in early stretch before ultimately tiring from the effort.

Holy Bull runner-up Shadow Dragon, Il Miracolo, Dangerous Ride, Blazing Sevens, and Legacy Isle rounded out the complete order of finish.

Forte, owned in partnership by Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable, covered a mile and one-sixteenth over a fast track in 1:43.12 and paid $3 for his fifth win in six starts. He was given a 98 Beyer Speed Figure.

“He got to the first turn in the position we wanted and was able to save some ground on the first turn after getting jostled around after the start,” said Pletcher. “He was traveling well behind those horses.

“Honestly I can’t say I’m surprised by his performance or how easily he won. I’ve felt he’s a really, really good horse and loved the way he was training into the race, he was doing exceptional. I was really confident coming in and he gave us the kind of performance we were hoping for.”

Pletcher said the $1 million Florida Derby here on April 1 would likely be next for Forte.

“We put ourselves in the position running here today that would give us the option to run back in the Florida Derby and off the strength of this race today, the way he handled everything, I’d say the Florida Derby would most likely be next,” Pletcher advised.   

Ortiz said he thought the Fountain of Youth should set Forte up nicely moving forward.

“I had a lot of confidence in him today,” said Ortiz, who has been aboard the juvenile champ in all six career starts. “He’s handled the kickback pretty good before, so I wasn’t afraid. I just bided my time to go, decided to wait a little more, until the three-eighths pole. I went around horses and let him go and show what he can do.”

Photo Taken by Lauren King

 Trainer Bill Mott said he thought despite getting a little geared up in the post parade, Rocket Can still ran his race.

“He ran big,” said Mott. “He was a little more wound up than I like to see him, he was sharp leaving there, was in good position, was tactical and held on well.”

Trainer Dale Romans said he was very happy with Cyclone Mischief’s performance and like Forte, he too is likely on target for the Florida Derby.

“It’s a relief to see him run hard the way he did, he tried hard all the way and did all the work and I’m very pleased with him,” said Romans. “It’s definitely a step forward and we’ll go on to the next one.”