LEXINGTON, Ky. — Forte has tasted the dirt and mud at Saratoga Race Course more than once.
On Friday, while tens of thousands of patrons sipped from champagne flutes and gobbled down barbecue and bread pudding with bourbon sauce, Forte ate dirt again.
He savored Keeneland Race Course’s just as much as he did Saratoga’s.
The Todd Pletcher-trained colt came from behind to catch heavy favorite Cave Rock and win the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, likely clinching an Eclipse Award in the process.
Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., Forte finished a length and a half ahead of Cave Rock with a substantial coating of soil, after having tracked the frontrunner patiently in the early stages.
It was his third straight Grade I victory, a streak that includes the Hopeful on closing day of the Saratoga meet and the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 8.
“It was a terrific performance,” Pletcher said. “I felt like we learned something from the Breeders’ Futurity. On that particular day, Irad felt like he made the lead too soon, and when he did he kind of got to laying on the horse next to him a little bit.
“So we wanted to make sure this time that, if we were fortunate enough to be in that position, we’d give him plenty of space and kind of stay away from the competition a little bit, and I think that paid off, plus having the experience over the track.”
The primary competition, in this case, was Cave Rock, who came in with a 3-for-3 record for trainer Bob Baffert, including the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and Grade I American Pharoah, and stablemate National Treasure, who was second in the American Pharoah.
And Cave Rock, who was bet down to 2-5, was in position to win heading for home, but couldn’t quite hold off Forte, who got to the front just outside the sixteenth pole.
National finished 2 1/4 lengths behind Cave Rock in third, and the Chad Brown-trained Blazing Sevens was fourth.
Forte has been assembling a race record that is studded with a variety of experiences that could be useful moving forward.
He was fourth in the Sanford on opening weekend of the Saratoga meet, then came back on a rainy, muddy day four weeks later to romp by three lengths, never letting the sloppy condition of the track bother him. On the contrary, he was full of energy while splashing through puddles in the paddock before the race.
On a comfortably sunny, breezy, dry day at Keeneland on Friday, he still managed to get dirtied up, but that was a product of his running style.
“In the Sanford, he just got a little kickback, and I think that might’ve compromised any chance he had that day,” Pletcher said. “He finally got extracted late and closed, but he spent so much of the race covered up, and dirt and kickback [in his face], that he never really got rolling until late.
“So he got that experience, and the Hopeful, obviously, was a step forward on a sloppy track. So he’s done it all.”
Pletcher also trained Forte’s sire, Violence, whose career was cut short when he came out of a second-place finish in the 2013 Fountain of Youth to eventual Kentucky Derby winner Orb with an injury that led to his retirement.
Pletcher had had high hopes for Violence, but the timing of the injury was such that it not only ended his racing career, but delayed the start of his stallion career until the following year.
Pletcher said Forte has more than a hint of his sire’s characteristics.
“He’s a spitting image of his sire, Violence,” Pletcher said. “He was a really good horse and, I think on the way to the Derby, when he had an untimely injury, but what really strikes you about this horse is he’s a clone of the stallion.
“That’s always a great sign, when stallions stamp their young like that. He’s an excellent mover with an excellent mind. A trainer’s pleasure.”
Baffert didn’t seem disappointed in the performance of his two horses, Cave Rock, ridden by Juan Hernandez, and National Treasure (John Velazquez).
“They both ran well, they just got beat. I hate when that happens,” Baffert said. “I think Johnny’s horse is still learning. And Forte ran a great race and came and got us. I know they went really fast early, and Juan did a good job, he stayed away when they were going fast.
“He [Cave Rock] didn’t switch leads until late, just got tired and that other horse came running and ran a big race. He’ll get a lot out of it. He’s a big, heavy, strong horse, and it’s a different kind of surface. But he had every chance to win even though they were going fast.”
“I thought we had a lot of momentum coming off the turn, but we also know that when you get to a horse like that, you’re going to have to find a little something more to keep going,” Pletcher said. “Fortunately, he did.”
JUVENILE TURF SPRINT
Mischief Magic started a last-to-first double to kick off the five Breeders’ Cup races when he weaved through traffic under William Buick to win the Juvenile Turf Sprint by a length over Dramatised.
Trailing in last place in the 12-horse field after a slow start, Buick kept Mischief Magic inside to save ground and patiently waited for an opening that would allow him to angle Mischief Magic outward for clear running.
When the hole appeared in the stretch, Mischief Magic fired through and got to the line first to give Buick his sixth Breeders’ Cup victory and trainer Charlie Appleby his seventh.
“As I said to William, the one thing he wants is to give him gaps,” Appleby said. “Give him daylight and the old bugger just might have a second chance. Fantastic ride by William and great effort by all the team. Great to be back.”
“I expected him to be outpaced early,” Buick said. “He’s a comfortable closer at six furlongs at home. I knew the 5 1/2 furlongs here with the speed in the race would catch him out early. I knew if I got behind a horse that would take me into the straight, he would finish off real good. He felt super.”
Four of the top five finishers are based in Europe.
The Chad Brown-trained Oxymore, who won the Skidmore at Saratoga, spent the early stages of the Juvenile Turf Sprint in the back of the pack, and stayed there, finishing 10th.
Like Mischief Magic, Wonder Wheel found herself in last place in the Juvenile Fillies, but she and jockey Tyler Gaffalione began passing horses on the far turn and won by a commanding three lengths.
The victory confirmed for trainer Mark Casse the high opinion he expressed about Wonder Wheel during the Saratoga meet, when he compared her to some of his top horses, like Classic Empire, Wonder Gadot and War of Will.
“I’ve trained some good older fillies,” Casse said after Wonder Wheel’s win on Friday. “This summer I was saying she’s my next Classic Empire. And where I was putting her, why I was putting her in that category was he won our first 2-year-old Breeders’ Cup. And I thought that she was that good. I told anybody who would listen. Today’s rewarding.”
Also on the card, as they did in the Juvenile Turf Sprint, European-based horses made their presence felt in the Juvenile Turf (Victoria Road) and Juvenile Fillies Turf (Mediate).