The final Road to the Kentucky Derby series qualifier in South Florida, the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park, produced a thrilling off-the-pace win from the projected Kentucky Derby favorite.

1. Forte rallies dramatically

Forte dropped behind horses early to avoid getting caught too wide on the first turn from post 11, racing toward the back of a 12-horse field along the backstretch, and wasn’t making up much ground on the far turn when Mage drove past him to make a serious bid for the lead.

Things changed quickly in the final stages, as the odds-on favorite found his focus swinging wide into the stretch drive and began to lengthen his stride. Forte seemingly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, overpowering rivals as he closed with a rush to win going away by a length.

Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher, Forte stretched out to 1 1/8 miles to record his fifth consecutive graded stakes win. The son of Violence is as classy as they come, and Forte certified himself as a prohibitive Kentucky Derby favorite for Mike Repole and Vincent Viola’s St. Elias Stable.

The champion juvenile male raced far back Saturday, but that was a byproduct of the short run to the first turn from an outside post at Gulfstream Park. Forte showed more positional speed in previous starts, and he’s recorded triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings in the last three outings.

2. Battle toughness

Many expected an easy win, but the hard-fought triumph may prove beneficial for Forte, sharpening him up for his main engagement in the Kentucky Derby (G1).

Forte fought some battles as a two-year-old, edging Cave Rock in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Loggins in the Breeders’ Futurity, but after a five-month freshening, the highly-accomplished colt met little resistance in his three-year-old opener, recording a smooth 4 1/2-length win in the March 4 Fountain of Youth.

His fortitude was tested in the Florida Derby, summoning every bit of courage to prevail, and Forte looks ready for the extreme challenge of a 20-horse field in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.

3. Mage overcomes slow start

A wire-to-wire debut winner in late January, Mage didn’t break sharply when hitting the gate at the start of the Fountain of Youth (G2) but recovered to closely stalk the pace before weakening to fourth late.

Trainer Gustavo Delgado added blinkers for the Florida Derby, and the chestnut colt figured to show speed. Instead, the blinkers had the opposite effect, as Mage walked out of the starting gate and trailed through the opening quarter-mile.

The Good Magic colt offered an eye-catching move into the far turn, inhaling rivals as he advanced to challenge for the lead at the top of the stretch. Mage got a little tired in the final furlong, working to get past Cyclone Mischief before giving way to Forte late, but he still wound up a clear second in only his third start.

His gate issues will be a concern at Churchill Downs, but Mage appears to be rapidly progressing.

Cyclone Mischief backed up his third in the Fountain of Youth, but he may need some help to get into the 2023 Kentucky Derby field with 45 points.