Today, we shine a light on the Florida Derby.
The annual graded-stakes event at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach obtains high-profile respect during the Kentucky Derby countdown for a couple of major reasons.
One involves Forte, the 2023 Florida Derby winner, and early favorite in the May 6 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Forte is trained by Todd Pletcher, a name that Florida horse racing bettors know very well. He has a record seven Florida Derby triumphs and is the leading money-winner at the facility.
There is a wave of industry sentiment for the popular Fletcher and his Florida-bred star.
The other concerns history.
A record 24 Florida Derby graduates have crossed the finish line first at the Kentucky Derby.
That makes the $1 million, 1 1–8-mile Florida Derby, first run in 1952, a natural magnet for Kentucky Derby betting analysis. But why?
There is no singular explanation for it, but there is one stout theory: timing.
The Florida Derby is ideal for connections of a horse, considering the Kentucky Derby. It takes place five weeks before the Run for the Roses, and may be considered an optimal training cycle.
Getting to the second level of analysis, a Kentucky Derby contender must also be top-notch. The Florida Derby has showcased an abundance of them over the last seven decades.
The honor drum roll, please …
Here is the Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby ink of horses able to win both races in the same year.
Needles was the first of 15 horses to complete the double in 1956.
He was followed by the initial likes of Tim Tam (1958), Carry Back (1961), Northern Dancer (1964), Forward Pass (1968), Spectacular Bid (1979), Swale (1984), Unbridled (1990), Thunder Gulch (1995), Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006) and Big Brown (2008).
The 2010s saw more Florida Derby magic as Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017) parlayed triumphs at Gulfstream’s signature race into victories at Churchill Downs.
Maximum Security (2019) also crossed the wire first in both races but was disqualified from Kentucky Derby glory after causing interference on the far turn.
And wait, Florida fans, it gets better.
Some horses who could not win the Florida Derby prevailed in Churchill Downs.
That list began with Dark Star (1953) and grew to include Iron Liege (1956), Venetian Way (1960), Kauai King (1966), Cannonade (1974), Foolish Pleasure (1975), Strike the Gold (1991), and Go for Gin (1994).
Those performances spoke volumes about the quality of the Florida Derby.
Now, performing well here is no guarantee of a fine Kentucky Derby outing and this link is cyclical.
The last two Florida Derby champions for example, Known Agenda and White Abarrio, were sub-par at Churchill Downs.
But a Florida Derby winner always will get a second look by the bettors.
Here are some highlights and anecdotes from Florida Derby champions and their Kentucky Derby saga.
The drama of 1964
Jockey Bill Shoemaker guided Northern Dancer to a Florida Derby triumph in the slop at Gulfstream, but then jumped aboard heavily-favored Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby.
Northern Dancer was left to new jockey Bill Hartack, who guided him to a thrilling victory by a neck in the Kentucky Derby. Who did he edge out? Hill Rise, with Shoemaker.
Given that irony, Shoemaker did ride the Kentucky Derby champion, just not in the Kentucky Derby.
Affirmed-Alydar duel had Florida roots
In 1978, Affirmed and Alydar were considered the top two horses in the country. In racing parlance, they were the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of their time.
And like heavyweight fighters preparing for a big bout, they were placed in different spring circuits to make sure they didn’t face each other too early.
Affirmed prevailed in California and Alydar starred in Florida.
Alydar romped in the Florida Derby, but lost a close one to Affirmed in the Derby. And in the Preakness. And in the Belmont. Alydar was the bridesmaid in the last Triple Crown victory to precede the historic 37-year drought.
After Affirmed, the Triple Crown wasn’t taken again until American Pharoah did it in 2015.
Unbridled: A decade unrivaled
Florida racing fans not only saw Unbridled win the Florida Derby in 1990. And then the Kentucky Derby. Unbridled added a third notch to his belt that year by capturing the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
And the highlights grew in the Proud Papa category.
In 1996, his offspring Unbridled Song captured the Florida Derby.
In 1999, his offspring Anees captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park. That’s quite a connection.
Horses with Unbridled breeding are considered excellent closers at a long distance.
Monarchos: A season for the ages
Monarchos became particularly exceptional. South Florida fans thought they were witnessing something special in his 2001 romp. That became prophetic when Monarchos prevailed at 10-1 in the Kentucky Derby in 1:59,97. That made him only the second horse in the history of a race dating back to 1875 to cover the 1 1–4-mile distance in under two minutes. The first was the immoral Secretariat, at 1:59.4, in 1973.
Yes, the Florida Derby winner nearly surpassed the GOAT of the horse-racing industry.
Big Brown: Accidental stardom
Big Brown broke his maiden at Saratoga in 2007 on turf and was scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in a first-level allowance on that surface at Gulfstream Park. But the race was moved to the dirt due to rain.
Trainer Rick Dutrow let him try the dirt anyway and Big Brown crushed the field by 12 3-4 lengths. He became viewed as a Kentucky Derby contender without having run in a stakes race.
And thus the 2008 Florida Derby was his test. He was the 3-2 favorite despite the extreme outside position. It hardly mattered as he romped by five. Getting the outside post proved to be a blessing because he drew it again at the Kentucky Derby.
Despite these obstacles, he drew away to triumph.
Imagine if it hadn’t rained. He might never have run in these big races.
Big Brown went on to win the Preakness and came up short in the Belmont.
This is the path Forte may be following this year. Forte had the 11 post for the 2023 Florida Derby and needed all his talents to surge past Mage just before the wire.
Always Dreaming: The Pletcher connection
There is a correlation between Forte and Always Dreaming, the last Florida Derby horse to officially win the Run for the Roses.
Pletcher has trained both.
In 2017, Always Dreaming would win the Florida Derby and give Pletcher his second Kentucky Derby. (He had Super Saver in 2010).
Is this going to be No. 3.?
Nobody wants to know more than Florida horse-racing fans.