Inaugurated at Gulfstream Park in 1952, the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby is not only one of the premier prep races for the Kentucky Derby, but has proven to be a prestigious prize in its own right. For more than six decades, it has yielded numerous Triple Crown race winners, champions, and eventual Hall of Fame inductees.
Needles (1956) was the first Florida Derby winner to go on and win the Kentucky Derby, an especially poignant victory as the colt was foaled in Florida and gave a boost to the state’s then-fledgling breeding industry.
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 (2005), Big Brown (2008), and Orb (2013) all followed in Needles’ hoofsteps by winning both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Other notable Florida Derby winners include Hall of Famers Nashua (1955), Alydar (1978), and Holy Bull (1994), and classic winners Bally Ache (1960), Candy Spots (1963), Snow Chief (1986), and Empire Maker (2003).
Florida Derby winners who won divisional championships at age two or in the sprinting category include Top Knight (1969), Honest Pleasure (1976), Plugged Nickle (1980), Lord Avie (1981), and Fly So Free (1991).
Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Jerry Bailey, Mike Smith, Edgar Prado, and John Velazquez – all Hall of Fame jockeys – are tied with three Florida Derby wins apiece. Smith, Prado, and Velazquez are active riders and have an opportunity to possess the record outright in the coming years.
Hall of Fame trainers Nick Zito and John Veitch, along with Todd Pletcher, own the record for most Florida Derby wins with three apiece. Veitch’s winners include Proud Truth (1985), the first Florida Derby winner to go on and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Alydar, who gave Calumet Farm a record fifth triumph in the race.
Calumet’s first Florida Derby score came in 1957 when Gen. Duke set a still-standing stakes record of 1:46 4/5 for the nine-furlong distance.
The largest margin of victory in race history was 9 3/4 lengths set by Empire Maker. The largest win payoff was $183.60 set by Williamstown Kid (1966).