Virginia-Connected Forte Early Kentucky Derby Favorite

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Fifty years after Virginia-bred Secretariat took the Triple Crown by storm, a champion colt with deep connections to the Old Dominion is the early favorite for the 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1). Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) hero Forte is a Kentucky-bred who grew up as a yearling in the Bluegrass. But he spent much of his babyhood at breeder Amy Moore’s South Gate Farm in Virginia, under the care of his accomplished Virginia-bred mother. 

That mare, Queen Caroline, was a remarkable first purchase for Moore. A retired attorney with an equestrian background from her formative years, Moore wanted to get involved in racing and breeding. While scouting out fillies at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, she came across a lovely daughter of champion Blame, best known for holding off Hall of Famer Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

The Blame filly was bred by Morgan’s Ford Farm in Virginia, but the geographical connection was not at all what caught Moore’s eye.

“It was happenstance,” Moore said. “I went to Keeneland and looked at yearling fillies. I wanted a filly because I wanted to be able to breed it if I had any success racing it.

“She was the only one on my list that got an A+ for conformation – a really pretty filly.”

Queen Caroline as a yearling at Keeneland September

Moore purchased her for $170,000 and came up with a clever name. Alluding to both her sire and dam, the stakes-winning Queens Plaza, she was named for a queen who came in for blame…Queen Caroline. 

The estranged consort of King George IV, Caroline of Brunswick was caught up in an early 19th-century British royal scandal. They were married when George was still Prince of Wales, but the union was doomed from the start, and they were soon living separate lives. The crisis point came when George acceded to the throne, and he sought to divorce Caroline on the grounds of adultery. She was far more popular than George, however, and his effort failed. Nevertheless, Caroline was still barred from his coronation in July 1821, and she died soon after. 

The equine Queen Caroline would turn out much happier.

“She was the first horse of any kind I actually owned,” Moore noted, since in her youthful riding days, she was always on other people’s horses.

Moore chose Michael Matz as her trainer, citing the combination of his horsemanship and proximity at Fair Hill in Maryland. Matz’s highlights in Thoroughbred racing include training 2006 Kentucky Derby legend Barbaro, but his experience goes well back to his days on the show jumping circuit.

“I knew of him, because in my youth I had been a show horse rider at the time he was a Grand Prix rider. I knew him as an excellent horseman,” Moore said. “I wanted to have a horse at Fair Hill, which is a place I can get to and return from in a day’s drive. It’s a nice training facility for a horse – they get turn-out places and woods to go through.”

Under Matz’s tutelage, Queen Caroline became a multiple stakes winner who earned $401,608. She was twice honored as a champion among Virginia-breds, taking top three-year-old filly honors in 2016 and the turf female title in 2017. 

Queen Caroline retired after a limited 2018 campaign. Visiting the well-bred Violence in 2019, she delivered a flashy colt with four white feet on February 3, 2020, at the Cowles family’s Gunston Hall Farm near Lexington, Kentucky. There was one other noticeable thing about the newborn.

“He was born with floppy ears,” Moore recalled. “His ears flopped like a puppy! But they straightened out in a few days after he was born.”

Forte as a newborn with floppy ears
Forte as a 10-day-old sticking close by mom

Although a first-time mother, Queen Caroline took on her new role like a pro.

“She was a good mother right from the start,” Moore said. “She is a class act!”

Queen Caroline remained at Gunston Hall as she prepared to be bred back to champion Uncle Mo. Thus her colt spent his first couple of months in the Bluegrass, tended by Larmon Cowles and his team. 

Once Queen Caroline was safely in foal again, mother and son went home in early May 2020 to South Gate Farm near Millwood, Virginia. Here are Queen Caroline with her colt (left) and their paddock mates, the mare Rose to Fame and her foal (a Cairo Prince colt who would be named Prince of Roses).

Queen Caroline with her foal running with their paddock mates
Forte at four months old with Queen Caroline

The colt was nicknamed “Gaudy” because of his snazzy white socks, but his personality was more introverted than his markings at that stage.

“Before he was weaned, he was quite shy,” Moore revealed. “He tended to hide behind his mother when you went into the stall.

“Once he was weaned, he blossomed. He was bold and very friendly. He liked to be petted and liked to be scratched.”

Forte posing at just the right angle for his registration photo

“Gaudy” enjoyed learning the art of eating carrots, as taught by Moore’s niece, Emily Ellis (pictured above, holding him to get the right angle for his registration photo). He munched on something else too – his paddock buddy’s tail, chewing the end of it right off!

Forte as a weanling

Later that fall, the weanling would bid adieu to his Virginia family and return to Kentucky for the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. There he was sold for $80,000 as a weanling to Silver Hill, a venture of Eaton Sales impresario Reiley McDonald who operates Athens Woods Farm near Lexington, Kentucky.

McDonald had expected to pay more for the weanling, purchased with a view toward reselling as a yearling. But sire Violence wasn’t that hot a commodity at the time. McDonald noticed that the colt had a bit of a lump on his back, near the tail, but surmised it was just a fatty deposit. Sure enough, that’s all it was, and it gradually went away on its own.

As the yearling developed, he continued to be both handsome and outgoing.

“There’s always one or two of them you get a special feeling for,” McDonald said, and this colt inspired just that kind of inkling.

“He was such a striking horse,” ever the one to catch your eye while driving around the farm.

“He was pretty, almost black, with the white on his face. He was so balanced and leggy that you could tell he was going to grow into a tall horse.”

The colt’s leadership of his paddock mates also set him apart.

“If you happened to be walking through the farm,” McDonald said, “he was always the first to trot over. He wanted to be scratched behind the ear.”

Then the rest of the colts would follow.

“He was ‘the man’ out in the field, the leader. Where he went, they went.”

Under the Eaton banner, the yearling was offered back at Keeneland in September. He brought a little more at $110,000, but that was a bargain considering the hefty sums spent by his high-profile buyers – Mike Repole’s Repole Stable and Vincent Viola’s St. Elias – on other yearlings. Jacob West of West Bloodstock and Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher were among the advisory team who found the youngster.

The yet-unnamed colt was sent straightaway to Ocala Stud for his early education. Part of Florida racing lore as the Sunshine State’s oldest operating Thoroughbred nursery, Ocala Stud has ties to several Kentucky Derby winners. Needles, the first Florida-bred to wear the roses in 1956, hailed from the property when it belonged to Dickey Stables. Carry Back (1961) was born, raised, and first trained at Ocala Stud, and both Unbridled (1990) and Street Sense (2007) went to school here.

Forte was a “really nice horse from day one,” Ocala Stud’s David O’Farrell observed. “He was very forward, very early. He always wanted to do more.”

As the curriculum advanced, Forte stood out.

“When he started breezing, he was a cut above the rest,” O’Farrell said. “He was always the head of the class. He was ‘the man.’

“We always felt like he could be a really good horse, from the day he stepped off the van.”

When Pletcher was in town for OBS March, the star pupil was pointed out as one ready to begin his program early in the spring. The juvenile accordingly graduated from Ocala.

Posting his first official work at Pletcher’s Palm Beach Downs base on Apr. 1, 2022, he stretched his legs a quarter-mile in :25.16. He would then receive the honorable name Forte, “strength” in Italian.

Forte winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Forte proved strong indeed on the racetrack. After romping as the 1-5 favorite in his May 27 debut at Belmont Park, he was a rallying fourth in the Sanford (G3) on a deeper, tiring surface at Saratoga. Forte was back in winning form next time out at the Spa in the Hopeful (G1). In the process, he topped a remarkable all-Eaton graduate trifecta with Gulfport and Blazing Sevens. Forte successfully stretched out to two turns in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, prevailing in a terrific battle with Loggins, then clinched his Eclipse Award in the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

Meanwhile, his yearling half-brother was making headlines too. Queen Caroline’s 2021 foal by Uncle Mo turned out to be quite a stunner. Touring the sales ring at Keeneland September, after Forte’s Hopeful victory, he commanded $850,000 from Ocala’s Mayberry Farm. The Uncle Mo youngster is currently limbering up at Mayberry, whose famous graduates include Hall of Famer Zenyatta, 2022 Derby upsetter Rich Strike, and recently crowned Horse of the Year Flightline.

Queen Caroline will meet Flightline himself soon. She’s among the stellar mares booked to the unbeaten champion in his first season at stud. By the first Saturday in May, she could be carrying a half-sibling to the Derby winner.

McDonald is delighted for Repole and Viola.

“I have a lot of respect for both gentlemen,” McDonald said. “I happen to know Vinnie quite well, and it makes it so much fun to see him having so much fun with a one-of-a-kind racehorse.”

Photo credits:

Photos of Forte as a newborn and 10-day-old at Gunston Hall Farm by Larmon Cowles
Photo of Forte running in the field at South Gate Farm by Emily Ellis
Photos of Forte as an older foal and weanling at South Gate Farm by Amy Moore
Photo of Forte winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by