The Florida connection behind Kentucky Derby favorite Forte’s success
David, Michael and Joe O’Farrell, left to right, pose for a photo on the track at Ocala Stud Farm in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. The O’Farrells are hoping that Forte wins the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The Todd Pletcher trained horse is currently the favorite in the Derby and Ocala Stud broke and trained the thoroughbred as a yearling in Ocala. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
As the countdown to Saturday’s 149th Kentucky Derby (G1) intensifies, all eyes are on the early favorite Forte, last year’s 2-Year-Old Eclipse Champion and winner of this year’s Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park. While he was bred and sold in Kentucky, Forte received his early training foundation in Ocala at the O’Farrell family’s legendary Ocala Stud Farm.
Owned by Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable, and trained by Todd Pletcher, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer who has family in Ocala, Forte was one of 165 youngsters that Ocala Stud broke and trained last year. According to David O’Farrell, Forte, who is the morning-line favorite at odds of 3-1, was a standout from the very start.
“He was extremely forward,” O’Farrell said. “When we got our group of yearlings in, he was one that was identified early on as being athletic and very forward, and he just progressed from there. He was the first 2-year-old to ship off the farm to go to the races. He was breezing a half-mile in March of his 2-year-old year. He was so forward, just blowing away everything else. He stuck out like a sore thumb early.
“Forte was very eager to train,” O’Farrell continued. “He never had a bad day, always full of energy, but always well within himself. We never anticipated that he would go on to become a Derby favorite, or even a great 3-year-old. We thought he was going to be a really good 2-year-old. You hope that they can continue on, but he was always very professional. You never really know, but he gave us every indication he could a good one.”
Good horses come from anywhere, as Forte’s success suggests. Acquired by his owners for the relatively modest sum of $110,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September Sale, Forte, according toO’Farrell, was one of 43 yearlings bought by the partnership that year, spending just over $16 million.
With any luck on the First Saturday in May, Ocala Stud can add to its illustrious history. With a trio of notable Kentucky Derby wins by training graduates Street Sense in 2007, Florida-bred Unbridled in 1990, and Florida-bred Carry Back in 1961, Forte is in a prime position to add to the farm’s storied history.
“I love his post position draw (No. 15), I love the fact that he drew toward the outside,” O’Farrell noted. “He is a horse that doesn’t like to be pinned up inside. I think if he can save ground and get to the outside in the stretch, and if he gets clear sailing, he will be very dangerous. He just needs daylight, and he will be tough to beat.”
Forte, who is perfect in two starts this season after winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park in March and the Florida Derby in April, is a son of Kentucky stallion Violence out of the Blame mare Queen Caroline.
“I also love the fact that he is out of a Blame mare,” O’Farrell said. “Blame will him get the distance. Blame had an affinity for the Churchill strip, so hopefully, that comes through on Saturday. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. I think he has a heck of a chance. He is a Grade 1 winner in New York, Kentucky, and Florida. He is tried and true. If he gets the trip, hopefully, he gets the job done.”On the other end of the price spectrum is another leading Derby contender with ties to Central Florida. Tapit Trice, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs and the Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland, was purchased by Florida-based Mandy Pope for $1.3 million at the 2021 Keeneland September Sale.
Pope races under the banner of her Whisper Hill Farm, a 400-acre operation just north of Ocala near Citra, where Tapit Trice did his early training. Campaigned by Whisper Hill in partnership with the colt’s breeder, Gainesway Farm, Tapit Trice, a flashy gray son of Tapit, has done little wrong in his racing career, winning four of five lifetime starts for Pletcher. Tapit Trice is listed at 5-1 odds on the morning line, and he will start from post position No. 5.
Some additional horses with ties to Ocala include OBS graduate and Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Practical Move. That son of Practical Joke was trained and sold by Eisaman Equine at last year’s OBS Spring Sale for $230,000 to Pierre and Leslie Amestoy and Roger Beasley. Practical Move is trained in Southern California by Tim Yakteen and he will break from post position No. 10; he is listed at odds of 10-1.
Eisaman Equine also offered Derby contender Raise Cain at last year’s OBS June , where the son of Violence was not sold and left the ring on a final bid of $65,000. Raise Cain, who is trained by Ben Colebrook, captured the Gotham Stakes (G3) in New York in March and most recently finished fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland behind Tapit Trice. Raise Cain drew post position No. 16 and is listed at odds of 50-1.
Skinner was trained and sold by de Meric Sales at last year’s OBS Spring Sale, where he was purchased by Mayberry Farm for a client for $510,000. Mayberry Farm trained last year’s upset Derby winner Rich Strike. Skinner was bought as a yearling the year before for $40,000 by Tami Bobo’s First Finds at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. The son of Curlin is trained by John Shirreffs, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with Giacomo. Skinner is listed at odds of 20-1 and will break from post position No. 9.
To learn more, go to kentuckyderby.com