Forte excels in G1 Hopeful
by Keith McCalmont
Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Forte made the grade with a decisive three-length score in Monday’s Grade 1, $300,000 Hopeful, a seven-furlong main track sprint for juveniles, on Closing Day of the 40-day summer meet at Saratoga Race Course.
Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher and piloted by the Spa’s leading rider Irad Ortiz, Jr., Forte earned redemption for his distant fourth-place finish in the six-furlong Grade 3 Sanford won by returning rival Mo Strike on July 16 here.
Pletcher said there were a number of good omens leading into the race, including saddling Forte’s recent workmate, Bal Harbour, for an 8 3/4-length romp earlier on the stormy card.
“Last time, he wasn’t able to get extracted into the clear until really, really late. When he did, he showed some interest,” Pletcher said. “He came back and trained really well with some older horses. His last breeze was with Bal Harbour who won earlier on the card. There were a lot of good indications that he was going to rebound and run to his capabilities, but you never know until you see it. I felt like the added distance was in his favor and he’s a nice colt.
“He came really energetic into the paddock, but it was a good energy, though,” Pletcher added. “You could tell he was kind of enjoying the rain and playing in the slop and splashing in the puddles in the paddock. I love the way he kicked away from the pony, he warmed up awesome.”
Mo Strike, with Florent Geroux up, broke alertly but conceded the lead to the Flavien Prat-piloted Gulfport, who splashed through splits of 22.74 seconds and 45.57 over the sloppy and sealed main track.
Gulfport led the field into the turn with Bourbon Bash advancing to his outside, but Forte entered the picture with purpose to the outside of Western Ghent and carried that momentum to the inside of Mo Strike, before cutting the corner to take command at the stretch call. Gulfport continued to battle down the center of the track, putting away Bourbon Bash, but could not keep pace with Forte, who strode clear and stopped the clock in 1:22.58. Gulfport completed the exacta by nine lengths over Blazing Sevens with Mo Strike, Bourbon Bash and Western Ghent completing the order of finish.
Pletcher commended Ortiz, Jr. for engineering a winning trip in difficult conditions.
“We were looking for the outside but if you watch the head on, the outside was way, way out there. So, there was no other option other than to stay in,” Pletcher said. “We tried to stay off the rail a little bit even though he was on the inside. There were puddles down in there and we wanted to get on the best part of the racetrack. Watching the head on, they were pretty spread out.”
It was the 15th stakes win overall and 10th graded win of the summer meet for Ortiz, Jr., led by Grade 1 scores with Nest [Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama], Life Is Good [Whitney] and Goodnight Olive [Ballerina Handicap].
“They ran away from me a little bit and my horse doesn’t have that kind of speed. I didn’t panic, I knew we’d be in the back,” said Ortiz, Jr., who captured his first Hopeful. “I kept him in the race and in the turn I started working on him. He started to pick it up slowly, but he picked it up. At the top of the stretch, I hit him a couple times and he responded really well. I knew I had a chance to win, so I just kept him busy.”
Ortiz, Jr. also noted Forte’s apparent affinity for the rainy weather.
“He was enjoying the time out there. He saw the water and was playing in it, so I thought maybe he’d like the slop,” Ortiz, Jr. said. “Todd told me to warm him up good before the race, I just tried to follow instructions and it worked out good.”
Prat, who won four races on the card, said his horse drifted over the sloppy and sealed surface.
“He broke well. I got myself in a good spot. When I got to the five-sixteenths pole, he kind of went out and as soon as he saw the winner coming through the inside, he kind of went out more,” Prat said.
The victory provided Pletcher with his fourth Hopeful score following past success with Circular Quay , Shanghai Bobby  and Competitive Edge . The Hall of Fame trainer finished second in the Spa standings with 38 wins overall and commended his team for a tremendous summer campaign.
“We had an awesome meet. Our team did an excellent job and worked super hard from Day One to the last day. To win the races that we’ve won, that’s awesome,” Pletcher said. “We were excited coming into the meet to have the opportunity to train some horses like we have. To see them deliver was great. Nest had a tremendous meet to win two Grade 1s. Life Is Good won the Whitney, the [Grade 1] Personal Ensign with Malathaat and a 2-year-old Grade 1 win today. I couldn’t be happier.”
Forte, a $110,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, graduated by 7 3/4-lengths in his May 27 debut sprinting five furlongs at Belmont Park. Pletcher said Forte will likely target the Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne on October 1 at the Belmont at the Big A fall meet.
Bred in Kentucky by South Gate Farm, Forte banked $165,000 in victory while improving his record to 3-2-0-0. He returned $15.80 for a $2 win bet.
Live racing resumes on Thursday, September 15 at Aqueduct Racetrack for the 28-day Belmont at the Big A fall meet, which features 41 stakes worth $9.9 million. The Opening Day card will feature Grade 1 steeplechase action with the $150,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap for older horses.
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