Hopefully, a frustrating spring will lead to a fruitful summer for a champion last seen in the winner’s circle nearly four months ago.
That would be Forte, the 2-year-old Eclipse Award winner who tops a talented but compact field of five in Saturday’s $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) at Saratoga.
Forte, with the nation’s leading rider in Irad Ortiz, Jr., aboard, was tabbed the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the 1 1/8-mile steppingstone to the $1.5 million Travers (G1) at the Spa on Aug. 26.
Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Forte was the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby (G1) after victories in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and the Florida Derby (G1). But he was scratched on the day of the Derby with a bruised foot, missed the Preakness (G1), and returned to finish second in the Belmont Stakes (G1) to Arcangelo.
“It was a frustrating spring and he ran terrific in the Belmont considering what he was up against,” Pletcher said. “To me, he’s a deserving divisional leader, but he has to continue to win to hold that spot.”
Trainer Brad Cox has three chances in the Jim Dandy with Angel of Empire, Hit Show and Saudi Crown. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will saddle Disarm.
The Belmont was Forte’s first race since winning the Florida Derby on April 1. As a 2-year-old, he won the Hopeful (G1), the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to be voted 2-year-old male champion.
His most recent work was a 4-furlong move in 50 seconds on July 22 with blinkers on for the first time. He will wear them in the Jim Dandy.
“It’s hard to think about making a change off multiple (good performances) in a row, but he’s always been a very intelligent colt and he’s gotten a little more complacent,” Pletcher said. “Everything comes so easily to him that he was maybe getting a little wise to it. We just needed him to get a little more focused.”
Angel of Empire, Disarm, and Hit Show ran 3-4-5 in the Derby. Hit Show and Angel of Empire then dead-heated for fourth in the Belmont, while Disarm won the Matt Winn (G3) at Ellis Park.
Saudi Crown is the least heralded horse in the field, but he finished a close second to Fort Bragg in the Dwyer (G3) on July 1 and looks to be the only speed in the race. A big question is whether Saudi Crown can stay in front over a race an eighth of a mile longer than the Dwyer.
Angel of Empire is the closer in the field, while Forte, Hit Show, and Disarm all race from off the pace.
Cox has the Travers in mind for Angel of Empire and Hit Show.
“They both got big numbers in the Belmont and they’re both doing well,” Cox said. “This is a step towards trying to get to the Travers and we’re hoping we see enough from them to march forward to that. I’m very happy with both of them all year. Consistent, durable horses that have shown up every time.”
The picks: Angel of Empire, Forte, Saudi Crown
The field, from the rail out, with jockey, trainer, odds:
1 Disarm (Joel Rosario, Steve Asmussen), 6-1
2 Forte (Irad Ortiz, Jr., Todd Pletcher), 7-5
3 Hit Show (Flavien Prat, Brad Cox), 6-1
4 Saudi Crown (Luis Saez, Brad Cox), 5-2
5 Angel of Empire (Florent Geroux, Brad Cox), 5-2
The writing team at US Racing is comprised of both full-time and part-time contributors with expertise in various aspects of the Sport of Kings.