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HomeHorse RacingHere’s How I’m Telling It: Forte’s Jim Dandy Will Not Be Forgotten

Here’s How I’m Telling It: Forte’s Jim Dandy Will Not Be Forgotten

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Last week’s headlines. Next generation’s legends. Usually it takes twelve retellings or two bottles of bourbon to get truth like this.

Reckless driving, team tactics, suspicious stewardship, and a bombastic owner throwing his weight around– all across a muddy track at our sport’s most celebrated meet. Wow, what a horse race. Maybe you saw it, maybe you didn’t, but here’s how I’m telling the story of the Grade Two $500,000 Jim Dandy from Saturday, July 29 at Saratoga.

Setting the Stage

Alright, so the Jim Dandy is a major stakes race for 3-year-olds at Saratoga. Every year a lot of the same horses from the Kentucky Derby run in it, along with other 3-year-olds who have gotten good after May’s Run for the Roses. 

This storyline coming into this year’s Jim Dandy was Forte. The 2-year-old champion who would have been the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but the day before the vets decided he couldn’t run because he had a bruised foot. He’s trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Mike Repole who made a fortune selling his flavored water company to Coca-Cola. They were pissed about being scratched and ever since, Repole has been throwing bombastic fits on Twitter and to reporters threatening to leave the game.

Brad Cox entered three horses in the race. Including the horse who finished third in the Derby as the favorite, Angel of Empire; the fifth-place finisher Hit Show; and an impressive newcomer to the scene, Saudi Crown.

Steve Asmussen entered Disarm, who finished fourth in the Derby. A strong group but still, only a field of five. 

Here’s How I’m Telling It

They’re turning for home in the Jim Dandy and Forte is blocked behind one Cox horse and pinned to the rail by another. He’s boxed in and has been the entire race. Team tactics. So he’s either got to wait for some daylight or race for second, which is not an option for his jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr.

Aggressive and reckless, it’s well-documented that Irad pushes the limits and does not get punished. Irad grabs the reins and angles Forte out, diving between Saudi’s tail and Angel’s jaw as soon as they come out of the turn for home. They could clip heels, they could knock each other off, it could be a disastrous spill across the mud, but he takes his big colt and tries to split the Cox team in half, asking Forte to throw his mighty weight against Angel of Empire. 

Now Forte has room, but not enough so Irad whips him on the left, sending him out again, even leans into it, as Forte fights on.

Saudi Crown is still in front, praying for the wire. But having taken out one Cox horse, Irad is set on taking out the other. If you’ve seen Irad get pissed at other jockeys on the race track then you know–Irad’s vengeance is volcanic. Veering Forte toward Saudi yards away from the finish line, Irad steers into his last target, visibly knocking Saudi’s back haunches right before the wire as Forte puts his head down, a nose in front at the wire. 

The inquiry sign goes up. You can’t ride like that. An obvious disqualification, right? Well, all week Repole has been out there on shows detailing his negative experience as an owner, how he will leave the game, and how he spends $20 million a year on the sport. These are complaints directed at many parties but definitely against the stewards. And they’re up there with this decision to make. An obvious takedown, but if they do, what does Repole do then? Well, they didn’t take him down. Forte was declared the winner of the Jim Dandy.

Why I Think It Matters

There Forte was, the 2-year-old champion locked in but patiently waiting his time, knowing he is tough enough to get through, fast and smart enough to find a way. But no, his pilot takes matters into his own hands. What we thought was a horse race had become a jockey race. 

Listen, Repole has some valid points, others where he is obviously trying to shape the narrative around his situation. Anyone who claims they are trying to fix a broken game but only brings talking points to the table that will positively impact themselves, not bettors, horsemen, fans, etcetera, I’ve got to question that. 

In post-race interviews, Repole called Forte the Jim Dandy champion. Many others say he does not deserve that title.

You could say that Forte is not a champion because Irad Ortiz Jr. did not let him be a champion. Forte could have found a way. If not then he doesn’t deserve the Dandy title. 

You could say that Forte is not a champion because his owner is throwing his weight around and, intentionally or not, needs to recognize that such public spectacles influence fans’ perception of whatever was said in the steward’s room. And that robs the backers of Saudi Crown as much as it robs the fans of their willingness to suspend their disbelief that this sport isn’t fixed. That anyone can win a horse race. When the cynicism sets in, the fans don’t come back. 

You could say that Forte is not a champion because the stewards kissed him up and anyone who just walked in out of the cold knows the score–it’s a landslide piled up atop the $2 bettor. There is no attempt by stewards or tracks to earn the fans’ trust. No statements are ever issued, and rarely is a steward held accountable in front of the cameras to explain how they correctly enforced the rules. Like it or not, a history of inconsistent and nontransparent decisions taint the claim that Forte is the Jim Dandy champion.

Forte deserves better. His talent, strength, intelligence and power, but what sets him apart is his heart for the race. The heart of a champion. I think he would have found a way to win without Irad.

But still, you cannot say that Irad Ortiz Jr. doesn’t have the spirit and mind of a champion. Irad emboldens his mount. He is racing to win. All champions make the necessary sacrifices. Like a quarterback who knows a heart-stopping hit is coming but sticks in the pocket one second longer for his receiver to get separation, Irad does what it takes, then leaves it up to the stewards to be brave enough to bring him down.

If Irad was on your team, you’d love him. But there are no teams in horse racing, just betting and ownership interests. And after races like the Jim Dandy, fans of the sport wake up more cynical, more willing to walk away.

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