Forte digs down deep to win Florida Derby; Angel of Empire romps in Arkansas

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Forte wins the Florida Derby on Saturday. Photo by Jeff Zamaiko, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
1 of 2 | Forte wins the Florida Derby on Saturday. Photo by Jeff Zamaiko, courtesy of Gulfstream Park

Aprl 3 (UPI) -- Just when it looked like he couldn't possibly do it, Forte pulled his act together and rallied through the final 1/16 mile to win the Florida Derby, preserving his status as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, which is five weeks down the road.

Meanwhile, Angel of Empire got the perfect trip to win the Arkansas Derby going away, putting him, too in perfect position to contest the Run for the Roses.


The third race of the weekend with Derby implications was in England, where Brave Emperor clinched the title in the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" series with a traffic-impeded runner-up showing in the Woodford Reserve Cardinal Conditions Stakes at Chelmsford Park.

His connections are still mulling whether to accept the Churchill Downs invitation.

Those were the marquee events on a weekend that saw top-shelf action all over North America and as far afield as Australia, Japan and South Africa.


Let's take a look at the results.

The Road to the Roses


Forte, the 2022 juvenile champ, showed guts and determination in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Stuck out wide from a disadvantageous draw, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. elected to drop in and settle far back in the 12-horse field, then had to come widest of all into the stretch. Halfway down the lane, even trainer Todd Pletcher thought he looked an unlikely winner.

No one told Forte, though, and the Violence colt found another gear that got him home first by 1 length over Mage, who endured a difficult trip of his own before taking the lead at the top of the lane. After that one, it was 2 lengths to Cyclone Mischief in third.

The victory was Forte's fifth in a row and fourth in a Grade I. It also was Ortiz's sixth win of the day, Pletcher's fourth and owner Mike Repole's third -- better than a trip to beleaguered Disney World.

It ensures that, barring anything unexpected, Forte will be the heavy favorite on the first Saturday in May in Louisville.


Pletcher commended Ortiz for handling the difficult post position, adding, "to me, the most impressive part was the last 100 yards. I mean, he came by me at the eighth pole and he looked beaten. Then, if you would have told me at that point that he was going to win by a length with his ears pricked, I would have said, 'No, couldn't do that.' So pretty impressive performance."

Asked if he will worry about the extra effort Forte expended to win Saturday, Plecher hedged slightly.

"Some people think you need a hard race before the Kentucky Derby," he said. "For me, I'll always take the easiest way. But, you know, we have five weeks. I just hope that the next five weeks are as good as the last five months have been for him."


While Forte had to overcome some hurdles to win in Florida, Angel of Empire got a golden trip in Saturday's $1.25 million Grade I Arkansas Derby.

With Flavien Prat in the irons, the Pennsylvania-bred colt by 2017 Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire sat coolly well off the pace, advanced on the outside rounding the turn and rallied down the middle of the track to get by all rivals and win by 4 1/2 lengths.


King Russell was along for second at odds of nearly 60-1 with Reincarnate third and the favorite, Rocket Can, fourth.

Angel of Empire ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:49.68, winning for the fourth time in six starts. The Brad Cox trainee won the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds in similar fashion in his previous start. That race and Saturday's were at 1 1/8 miles.

Co-owner Albaugh Stables now has three live Kentucky Derby candidates, also including Cyclone Mischief, third in the Florida Derby, and Jace's Road, third in last weekend's Louisiana Derby. Said racing manager Jason Lautsch, "I just can't hardly believe it."

Cox added, "He was very impressive today. I always thought he'd be better with more ground and obviously he's 2-for-2 at a mile and an eighth. Hopefully we can be 1-for-1 at a mile and a quarter in five weeks."


Bold Act, with a clean trip through an opening on the rail, got home first in Saturday's Woodford Reserve Cardinal Conditions Stakes at Chelmford Park, but it was Brave Warrior who clinched the top spot in the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" with a runner-up finish after an eventful passage at the top of the lane.


Bold Act, a Godolphin homebred colt by New Approach, is not nominated to the U.S. Triple Crown. Brave Warrior was made a late nominee a week ago for a $6,000 fee and now is entitled to a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

Trainer Archie Watson did not immediately respond to questions about plans for the Sioux Nation colt, who now has five wins from seven starts.

The Path to the Oaks

Trainer Graham Motion has been nothing if not patient with Affirmative Lady and the filly returned the favor in Saturday's $250,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks.

After a stalking trip under jockey Luis Saez, the Arrogate filly got out to the four-path in the stretch, rallied by rivals and won by 2 lengths over Sacred Wish. Flakes was a long shot third, Dorth Vader was fourth and the favorite, Miracle, finished fifth. Affirmative Lady toured 1 1/16 miles of fast track in 1:44.69.

Motion put Affirmative action in the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct in December despite disappointing efforts in her first two starts.

She responded with a second-place finish, beaten just a neck, but then was a well-beaten third in the Busanda Stakes a month later. She finally got her first win in a maiden event at Gulfstream on Feb. 26.


Now she's No. 2 on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard -- a race Motion coyly referred to after Saturday's win.

"There's a big race going a mile and an eighth in May, so we'll think about that," Motion said. "Look, if she comes out of it OK, we have to. That's what she wants to do."

At Oaklawn Park, Wet Paint was 10th and last early in Saturday's $600,000 Grade III Fantasy, swept by the field five-wide entering the stretch and hit the front inside the furlong marker. She then ran on to win by 2 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite, scoring her third straight win.

She has not lost in four starts on the dirt. Taxed and Olivia Twist were second and third as the Brad Cox trainee, with Flavien Prat up, finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.08.

"We'll get her to Churchill (Downs) at some point this week and get her ready for the Oaks," said Cox, who has three of the top six fillies on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard.

"We've got a good group ... I'm not sure they'll all run, but we'll have a couple, anyhow."

Saturday's $125,000 Serena's Song Stakes at Turfway was just 6 furlongs on the all-weather track but Sunday Shoes' winning effort was impressive nonetheless.


The Wesley Ward trainee dropped to the rail in the stretch run and quickly took command, winning by 3/4 length, ridden out by Jareth Loveberry. Jill Jitterbug was best of the rest. Sunday Shoes, a Pioneerof the Nile filly, now is 2-for-2, both wins sprinting at Turfway Park.

Turf / Turf Mile

Eight-year-old Therapist outfinished Bay Street Money in deep stretch of Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Pan American Stakes at Gulfstream Park, winning by 3/4 length with a wide rally. The favorite, Master Piece, yielded to the late charge and finished third.

Therapist, a New York-bred Freud gelding, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:29.22 for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and trainer Michael Maker, backing up an allowance win on the Gulfstream all-weather course in his last start.

On Sunday at Santa Anita, odds-on favorite Johannes kicked away from three rivals in the stretch and ran on to win the $100,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3 1/2 lengths over Game Time. Wizard of Westwood and Keen to Go completed the order of finish.

Johannes, a Nyquist colt, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:33.79 for jockey Umberto Rispoli, scoring his third straight win.


Filly & Mare Turf / Turf Mile

Closing Remarks had the last word in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes at Santa Anita, rallying four-wide to get the lead in the stretch before clearing to win by 1 1/2 lengths. School Dance was second, a neck to the good of Very Scary.

Closing Remarks, a 5-year-old Vronsky mare, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.82. Joe Bravo had the mount for trainer Carla Gaines. Although she is rarely out of the money, the Royal Heroine was Closing Remarks' first open-company stakes win.

Amazing Grace, making her first U.S. start since arriving from Germany, came running late between rivals to grab a 1/2-length victory in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Orchid Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Personal Best was second best, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Atomic Blonde, a recent arrival from Italy.

Amazing Grace, a 4-year-old filly by The Grey Gatsby, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:28.82 with Joel Rosario up for trainer Christophe Clement.

Exaulted stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III American Stakes at Santa Anita, rallied outside the early speed to take the lead and held off Irideo to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Bob and Jackie was third, and the favorite, Du Jour, got home fourth.


Exaulted, a 6-year-old son of Twirling Candy, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:33.65 with Juan Hernandez aboard.

Marketsegmentation came flying from the back of the field to score a neck victory over Princess Theorem in Saturday's $150,000 Sand Springs Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The pacesetter, Love in the Air, faded to finish fourth.

Marketsegmentation, a 4-year-old American Pharoah filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.13. Irad Ortiz Jr. rode for trainer Chad Brown. It was her third win from five starts.

Breath Away rallied from last of nine to take Saturday's $100,000 Sanibel Island Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park by 2 1/2 lengths from Metaphysical.

Breath Away, a British-bred filly by Bated Breath, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:29.90 with Jose Ortiz at the controls. She now is 2-for-3 with the lone loss coming by a nose.

Turf Mile

Steady On engaged pacesetting Churchtown near the furlong marker in Saturday's $150,000 Appleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park and wore that one down to score a 1/2-length win. Fort Washington was another 2 lengths back in third.

Steady On, a 4-year-old Pioneerof the Nile colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.49 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up for trainer Todd Pletcher and the same ownership team that had Forte in the following race.


Classic / Dirt Mile

It's unusual to see trainer Bob Baffert without a horse in the Arkansas Derby, a result this year of his ban by Churchill Downs.

But the frequent Oaklawn raider had a win on the card, anyway, as Hopper rallied from a pace-pressing trip to win the $400,000 Grade III Oaklawn Mile by 1 3/4 lengths over Caddo River.

Hopper, with John Velazquez up, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.63. He won the Grade III Affirmed last June, finished second in the Grade II San Pasqual in January and got home fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, fading late at 1 1/4 miles.

Clapton rallied to the lead a furlong out in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Ghostzapper Stakes at Gulfstream Park and inched away to score a 1/2-length victory at odds of 21-1. O'Connor was second, with the favorite, Simplification, never involved.

Clapton, a 4-year-old colt by Bretheren, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.94 with Emisael Jaramillo in the irons. Clapton finished 10th in last year's Florida Derby with Simplification third.

Florent Geroux had a little trouble getting Eyeing Clover under control early in Saturday's $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park but, once successful at that, the Lookin At Lucky colt past the early leaders and on to a 1-length win. The favorite, Gun Pilot, settled for second.


Eyeing Clover ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.45.

At Aqueduct, Law Professor settled off the early pace in Saturday's $150,000 Excelsior Stakes, moved up turning for home and drew off through the stretch to score a 4 1/4-lengths victory as the odds-on favorite.

The early leader, Keystone Field, held second. Law Professor, a 5-year-old Constitution gelding, ran 1 1/8 miles on a muddy track in 1:50.34 with Manny Franco in the irons.

Calibrate was along in the late going of Sunday's $150,000 Temperence Hill Stakes at Oaklawn Park, edging the odds-on favorite, Lone Rock, by 1 length. Warrant, who led most of the 1 1/2 miles, finished third.

Calibrate, a 5-year-old Distorted Humor gelding, started at odds of 30-1 and finished in 2:31.79 on a fast track with Francisco Arrieta up. It was the first stakes victory of his 24-race career and followed a handicap victory at Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma.

Mine That Star came from just behind the early pace to win Sunday's $150,000 Sunland Park Handicap by 3 1/4 lengths over Zestful. Mine That Star, a 6-year-old by Pioneerof the Nile, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:49.55 with Ken Tohill in the irons.



Falconet got first run to the lead in the stretch in Sunday's $100,000 Top Flight Stakes at Aqueduct and was gone by the time the odds-on favorite, Kathleen O., put in her bid.

The result was a 2 1/4-length upset victory for Falconet, a 4-year-old Uncle Mo filly trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Jose Lezcano. Kathleen O. finished second.

Falconet ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:51.42. She has four wins and four seconds from nine starts.


Weyburn rallied from well back in the nine-horse field to win a three-way photo in Saturday's $100,000 Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The camera found Dean Delivers a neck back in second and a neck in front of Steal Sunshine.

Weyburn, a 5-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile, finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.15 with Jose Ortiz aboard. He won last year's Sir Shackleton by 2 1/2 lengths, but had not been close to victory in five intervening starts.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Wicked Halo, making her first start since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Keeneland, overcame the layoff and a muddy track to win Friday's $250,000 Matron Stakes by 3/4 length over Matareya. I'm the Boss of Me and Pretty Birdie completed the order of finish after three scratches.


Wicked Halo, a Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred filly by Gun Runner, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.31 with Tyler Gaffalione up.

"It's very exciting for her to start her 4-year-old season running as fast as she did. I don't think we should be surprised with that with the Gun Runners, knowing how he was," trainer Steve Asmussen said, adding that the Grade I Derby City Distaff on Kentucky Derby Day is his filly's next goal.

Turf Sprint

Behind Enemy Lines, a Sioux Nation colt, stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Cutler Bay Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, took the lead late and drew clear, winning by 2 lengths over Anglophile.

With Jose Ortiz aboard for trainer Jack Sisterton, Behind Enemy Lines ran 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:30.35. It was his first U.S. race after two starts in Ireland for trainer Joseph Patrick O'Brien -- the latter a stakes win Jan. 4 on the Dundalk all-weather course.

Around the world, around the clock


Jack d'Or led virtually from gate to wire in Sunday's Grade 1 Osaka Hai at Hanshin Racecourse, holding off the reigning Japanese Oaks champion, Stars on Earth, by a nose at the finish. Danon the Kid was third.


It was the first Grade 1 victory for Jack d'Or, but the 80th for his jockey, Yutaka Take, who at age 54 became the oldest rider to win a Japanese Grade 1.

"I was hoping to take the front if we could get a good start," Take said. "He was a bit keen to go in the first two corners but raced in good rhythm thereafter.

"I think it was tough for him because of the headwind in the straight but I had a feeling that we were able to hold off the chasing horses when we crossed the wire."

He added: "I owe it to all the many great horses I was able to ride and I will do my best to extend this record even further.


Chalk players were out of luck Saturday at Randwick as long shots prevailed in three of the four Group 1 events. The day was notable with one-time Hong Kong rivals Zac Purton and Joao Moreira each winning a Group 1 heat.

I Wish I Win posed a mild upset in the Furphy T J Smith Stakes, 1/2 length in front of promising 3-year-old Giga Kick. The favorite, Nature Strip, seeking an historic fourth straight victory in the race, struggled home fourth, and trainer Chris Waller said an assessment of his status is in order.


"Obviously, he is not quite as dominant as he has been," Waller said. "There is no suggestion the horse is calling for retirement, but Nature Strip comes first. He will tell us where he is at."

Major Beel led three long shots across the line in the ATC Australian Derby with the favorite, Group 1 New Zealand Derby winner Sharp 'N' Smart, settling for fourth.

Militarize, at 20-1, scored by 3 1/2 lengths under Moreira in the Inglis Sires' Stakes for 2-year-olds with the favorite, Cylinder, finishing seventh, 7 1/4 lengths adrift.

Mr Brightside was the only favorite to return a winner and he went to the post at odds of 5-1 in The Star Doncaster Mile. With Purton riding, he got home a short head in front of My Oberon.


Here's a shocker: Trainer Aidan O'Brien and jockey Ryan Moore landed both Guineas Trials Sunday at Leopardstown.

Hans Anderson moved smoothly to the lead at the top of the stretch in the Ballyinch Stud "Red Rocks" 2000 Guineas Trial and ran on to win easily by 2 1/2 lengths over Bold Discovery. Another O'Brien charge, Carracci, was third.

Hans Anderson, a Frankel colt, was making his 3-year-old debut after finishing 2022 with a fifth-place showing in the Group 1 National Stakes.


Never Ending Story had to put out a bit more effort in the final furlong of the Ballyinch Stud "Priory Belle" 1,000 Guineas trial, but finally got the job done with some class, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over a stubborn Matilda Picotte.

Never Ending Story, a Dubawi filly, ended her 2022 campaign with a third-place finish in the Group 1 Prix Marcel Boussac at Longchamp.

O'Brien said he thinks both winners eventually might get more than a mile but plans remain fluid.

"At this time of year, a lot can happen in a week," he said.


Pensee Du Jour made all in Saturday's Group 3 Prix Penelope at Saint-Cloud, staying well to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Sea of Roses. Be Happy, with Ryan Moore up, finished second -- better of two entered by trainer Aidan O'Brien.

Pensee Du Jour, a Camelot filly trained by Andre Fabre, now is 3-for-3 and hasn't been seriously challenged in any of her starts.

"She is a very exciting prospect," said Anthony Stroud, racing manager for the owners, the Wildenstein family.

South Africa

Trip of Fortune won Saturday's Group 1 H F Oppenheimer Horse Chestnut Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Mk's Pride with the favorite, Anfields Rocket, third. Trip of Fortune, a 5-year-old Trippi gelding, improved to eight wins from 16 starts for trainer Candice Bass Robinson.


Son of Raj rolled home a winner by 2 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Billy Bowlegs, in Saturday's Group 1 World Sports Betting SA Derby. It was another 2 1/4 lengths to Rule by Force in third.

Son of Raj is a son of Duke of Marmalade, who strung together five consecutive Group 1 wins in France and England in 2008.

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