Breeders’ Cup Juvenile races produced both the 2-year-old filly and colt champions, with Wonder Wheel taking the filly statue and Forte leading the colts.
Each spring, as most trainers get their promising 2-year-olds ready to begin their careers, invariably one or two (or maybe more, depending on the conditioner) of these youngsters stand out. And just as invariably, these trainers hold their breath and cross everything they can cross to help ensure everything goes right enough that the end result–a Breeders’ Cup win–produces the ultimate result–the Eclipse Award.
For Hall of Fame conditioner Mark Casse, Wonder Wheel was that horse in 2022. Some trainers cautiously follow the old idiom of playing cards close to their vest, but not Casse. Nobody didn’t know how he felt about Wonder Wheel early on.
“This summer I was saying she’s my next Classic Empire,” Casse said, comparing the daughter of Into Mischief to his 2016 juvenile champion. “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.”
With one notable exception, Wonder Wheel turned in a classic championship-style season which garnered her two Grade I wins.
After breaking her maiden at first asking back in June, her first foray into stakes company produced a 6 3/4-length win in the Listed Debutante S. at Churchill Downs on Independence Day. That dominant performance earned her a spot in the GI Spinaway S. gate at Saratoga two months later and, though it wasn’t the smoothest of trips for the filly that day–some would say she ran “greenly”–she still managed a decent runner-up finish to fellow Eclipse Award finalist Leave No Trace (Outwork).
She was a 4-1 lukewarm favorite in the GI Darley Aclibiades S. at Keeneland Oct. 7 in her next start and had to work for it, barely holding off the highly regarded Chop Chop (City of Light) by a diminishing nose in that wire-to-wire performance. And by the time those two met again in the Breeders’ Cup, she was a 6-1 fourth choice while her Alcibiades runner-up carried favoritism.
And in a somewhat surprising move that day, Wonder Wheel wasn’t anywhere near her preferred spot as the leader or among them, she was in front of just two rivals in the early going. In an effort expected from older runners rather than lightly raced 2-year-olds, the bay filly saved ground in the early going, quietly gained on her rivals on the turn, snuck through the narrowest of gaps at the quarter pole, took advantage with an eighth left to run and stormed home to win by three lengths.
“Two-year-olds can’t do what she did. It’s just very difficult to come from out of it,” Casse said. “She, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being absolute class, she’s a 10.”
Wonder Wheel is owned by Len and Lois Green’s D J Stables, which also campaigned 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fillies winner Jaywalk (Cross Traffic) in partnership with Cash Is King Stable. Len Green is a CPA and lecturer at Babson College and a graduate of the Harvard Business School. He regularly writes and lectures on financial issues affecting horse owners. He is undoubtedly an expert on profits and losses, rewards and risks. The next big risk for Wonder Wheel could perhaps be taking on the boys in the GI Kentucky Derby.
“I’m sure we’ll be nominating,” Casse said.
Wonder Wheel was given a couple months off over the winter and has been back to work at Casse’s Florida training center, with a 2023 debut yet to be determined.
He may not have been the most expensive of the 43 yearlings Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola bought out of the 2021 Keeneland September sale when the hammer fell at $110,000 that day, but Forte certainly can claim the title of most successful when he capped off an impressive year by collecting the Eclipse Award trophy as the best 2-year-old colt or gelding of 2022.
Much has been made of the colt’s name, which means “strong” in Italian and follows the Italian-themed pattern of names for other top Repole/St. Elias runners, like champion and 2019 GI Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Vino Rosso (Curlin). But another meaning says the word denotes, “something in which one excels; a peculiar talent or faculty; a strong point or side; chief excellence.” Not much to argue against that meaning, either, where Forte is concerned.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who conditioned 2010 champion juvenile Uncle Mo for Repole and also Forte’s sire, selected the colt for one primary reason.
“He looks like Violence,” Repole said.
Forte was the 1-5 favorite in his debut at Belmont Park May 27 off some incredible works and backstretch buzz, and he ran to his odds, dominating his opponents by 7 3/4 lengths to earn the ‘TDN Rising Star’ moniker. He also justifiably earned his position as a leading force to be reckoned with in the 2-year-old stakes ranks on the East Coast. For a little while, anyway.
As is more common than not with growing and maturing juveniles, that rolling boil of excitement cooled to a simmer when he turned in an unexpected and well-beaten fourth-place finish as the favorite in his stakes debut in the GIII Sanford S. at Saratoga July 16. His connections offered no excuses and continued to look ahead, the year-end goal of the Breeders’ Cup always within their crosshairs.
Finding some added distance and a wet track to his liking for his next start, as well as no pressure as the near 7-1 fourth choice, was all he needed to put in a three-length romp in the sloppy GI Hopeful S. and return to the rank as the best 2-year-old based in New York.
While the logical and typical next move for the leading colt on the right coast as a last prep for the Breeders’ Cup would have been the GI Champagne S. at Belmont Park, Forte’s connections decided to call an audible since the Breeders’ Cup would be held at Keeneland, choosing instead to use the GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity as a springboard to the World Championships. Dismissed as the near 9-2 second choice, he rolled from way back to earn a neck win over 7-5 favorite Loggins (Ghostzapper).
Despite his impressive fall campaign of two Grade I wins, on Future Stars Friday, Forte was the 5-1 second choice to the highly regarded Bob Baffert-trained dual Grade I winner Cave Rock (Arrogate) at 2-5 when the gates sprung open. And just as it looked as though the win–as well as divisional honors–were slipping away as his chief rival led the field into the stretch, Forte found another gear and dug in, running down the favorite in deep stretch in a thrilling 1 1/2-length victory.
Forte turned in his first work as a 3-year-old, going an easy three furlongs at Palm Beach Downs Jan. 21. He is expected to make his 2023 bow in the GII Fountain of Youth S. at Gulfstream Park Mar. 4 and then use GI Florida Derby Apr. 1 or GII Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland Apr. 8 as his final prep for the May 6 GI Kentucky Derby.
“I thought he was a gorgeous foal. I was really happy with him. I had had weanlings by Violence that I had pinhooked–I bought weanlings and sold yearlings–and I liked them, but they didn’t really resemble the sire at all. So I was pleased to get a foal in Forte that looks a lot like Violence. He’s a good blend of his sire and his dam.”
-Amy Moore, South Gate Farm Owner and Founder