Notes and Anecdotes from the Florida Derby’s Storied History
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – One, two, three, four…71.
That’s how many times the Florida Derby has been run at Gulfstream Park. Many memorable, some not too memorable. Many have featured champions and future champions, some have not.
Think about it – the first Florida Derby was contested in 1952. The average household income was $3,515, only one in three families had a television, and Dolly Parton was 6 years old.
Saturday’s $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa will once again be a major prep for the Triple Crown and an opportunity for the connections of one 3-year-old to realize the dream of winning the Florida Derby and possibly the Kentucky Derby.
Throughout the years, the Derby has offered upsets, surprises, big money payoffs and heart-warming stories. These are just a few of them.
__Brookmeade’s ‘Ship’ Wins First Florida Derb__y
Eight years had passed since James Donn Sr. reopened Gulfstream Park with tremendous success, but something was still missing in 1952 – a marquee event to showcase the thriving Thoroughbred track.
A Derby, to be exact.
Races by the same name had been run at old Moncrief Park in Jacksonville in 1910 and Tampa and Hialeah from 1926-1936, but the Florida Derby was born on March 15, 1952.
An 18-horse field took to the track for the post parade that day including Sky Ship, a horse not among a list of 24 probable and possible entrants published in morning newspapers on the day before the $20,000-added event. But the withdrawal of Flamingo Stakes winner Charlie McAdam a day earlier prompted Brookmeade Stable to enter Sky Ship in the Derby. With just 14 stalls in the starting gate, four horses had to be lined up outside the gate for the start. Sky Ship broke well, was always in contention, and beat Handsome Teddy by head under jockey Ronnie Nash.
Sky Ship, sixth in the Flamingo Stakes, went off 11-1 as part of an entry with Closed Doors and returned $24.10.
The first Florida Derby was attended by 17,915, and Sky Ship earned Brookmeade more than $17,000 for the victory.
‘Broker’ On The ‘Money’
Jockey Alfred Popara was a little short of cash in the winter of 1953.
After buying a house to move his wife and four children out of a trailer, Popara was looking for a live mount to help him through the cash crunch.
Enter Money Broker. After the owners flipped a coin to decide whether to run the horse in the Florida Derby or Arkansas Derby, they chose to run in Florida. A former Golden Gloves champion from California, Popara and Money Broker raced 10 lengths off the leaders in the 16-horse field before taking the lead entering the stretch and winning by a head over Blaze. Money Broker returned $33.80.
Money Broker and Popara made it to the Kentucky Derby, but they swerved into Native Dancer around the first turn – the chart reads Native Dancer being “roughed up” by Money Broker – and finished eighth. As for Popara, he had only good memories of the Florida Derby and the $8,000 he made winning the race. “When I bought my house we had no money to buy furniture,” he recalled. “So, needless to say, the money didn’t last very long.”
Cigarettes, Black Coffee, and a Derby Winner
Arnold Fink wasn’t much of a talker, so it was no surprise that after saddling longshot Mercedes Won to victory in the 1989 Florida Derby, Fink didn’t join jockey Earlie Fires and owner Christopher Spence in the press room to meet the media.
“He’s sort of a loner,” Fires said.
So where was Fink? He stood alone behind the clubhouse, next to an exit sign, holding a cigarette burning dangerously close to his fingers before inhaling one last drag.
Fink was asked how he would celebrate? “Hiding,” said the man who was said to live on cigarettes and honey buns.
Victory party? “No,” he said. “Back home [at Finger Lakes] we go out Tuesday and Friday, anyways. Besides, I don’t celebrate wins.”
What about if Mercedes Won was to win the Kentucky Derby? “He won’t run in the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “Not everyone wants to win the Derby.”
Fink was true to his word. Purchased for only $5,700, Mercedes Won wouldn’t run in any Triple Crown race or win another graded stakes.
Yes, Fink wasn’t much of a talker. “But,” Fires said, “he’s a super horseman.”
Ice Box: From Last to First
In 2010, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito entered Robert LaPenta’s longshot Ice Box in the Florida Derby. After drawing post 8 in the 11-horse field, LaPenta admitted, “we were actually thinking of scratching him.” But despite the draw, and despite being so outrun early that he wasn’t in camera range, Ice Box rallied down the stretch to win by a nose at odds of 20-1. Ice Box didn’t win another race in his final nine starts, but he did finish second in the Kentucky Derby to Super Saver.
It was the first of two consecutive Derby victories for Zito, who won the race again the following year with Dialed In. Zito also won the Derby in 2005 with High Fly.
I’ll Have Another
Both 2015 champion juvenile Nyquist and Fountain of Youth (G2) and Holy Bull (G2) winner Mohaymen entered the 2016 Florida Derby undefeated - 10 wins between them. Mohaymen stabled in Florida, Nyquist in California. But there was more on the line for the connections of Nyquist. Paul Reddam, who had won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another, was not only looking at the $600,000 first-place winner’s share of the Florida Derby but also a $1 million bonus put up by Fasig-Tipton for the colt having been sold at their Gulfstream sale the previous year. While trainer Doug O’Neill admitted having reservations about shipping east and to Mohaymen’s backyard, it turned out there was no need to worry. Nyquist handily defeated Mohaymen and would go on to give Reddam his second Kentucky Derby victory.
A First for Florida
If there was one horse who put the Florida Thoroughbred breeding industry on the map, it was Needles. A modestly bred colt who nearly died when coming down with equine pneumonia when he was just five weeks old, Needles persevered to not only win the Florida Derby but the Kentucky Derby as well and become the first Florida-bred to win the Run for the Roses as well as the Belmont Stakes.
In Central Florida Thoroughbreds by Charlene Johnson, Needles was described as “tough,” by veterinarian W. Reuben Brawner. And he was “a cantankerous sort of horse,” said jockey Dave Erb. But consider the impact of Needles on Florida breeding and racing. In 1952, there were four farms in Marion County. There were 21 by the time he retired the following year.
A Bull Inthe Heather
Arthur Klein, an electrical contractor from New York, wasn’t going to buy any yearling in 1991 for more than $70,000. Then he saw Bull Inthe Heather.
“He looked me in the eye and said I will beat anything on earth, and I don’t care if you buy me or not,” recalled Klein, who wound up purchasing the son of Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand for $130,000. It didn’t look like the best of investments early, as Bull Inthe Heather won only one of his first six starts and entered the 1993 Florida Derby as a 30-1 longshot. But over a sloppy track and intermittent rain showers, Bull Inthe Heather won the race by two lengths over favored Storm Tower for popular trainer and Miami native Howie Tesher.
Immediately after the Derby, Klein was offered $2 million for Bull Inthe Heather. “I’m saying, ‘Arthur take the money,’ because I’m going to take a percentage, too,” Tesher said.
But the offer was rescinded when Klein asked for $2.5 million. Bull Inthe Heather would win only one more race in his final 26 starts. But the horse would get a song named after him. The revered, experimental band Sonic Youth named a song Bull Inthe Heather, not for the horse but rather they simply liked the name as a song title.
You Win, You Lose
The 1998 Florida Derby was described by one writer as having more “thrills and chills than a three-ring circus.”
Lil’s Lad, owned in part by the colorful Murray Durst, entered the race the heavy favorite off his victory in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and indeed crossed the finish line a nose in front of Cape Town. But the race was marred when Lil’s Lad, ridden by Jerry Bailey, and Coronado’s Quest brushed and bumped repeatedly around the far turn. But after putting away Coronado’s Quest, Lil’s Lad interfered with Cape Town inside the final eighth of a mile. Stewards took Lil’s Lad down and declared Cape Town the victor. For Bailey, it was simply a case of Lil’s Lad mistaking Cape Town for Coronado’s Quest.
“Coronado’s Quest laid all over [Lil’s Lad],” Bailey said. I mean, bumped him five or six times, hard, around the turn. I struggled to keep my horse straight, but as soon as he saw Cape Town, he dove out to get him [thinking it was Coronado’s Quest]. He was still fighting. He was mad.”
Coronado’s Quest, who had developed a reputation for being unruly – freezing on the way to the track and forcing jockey Robbie Davis to dismount before the race – finished fifth in the Florida Derby. The colt would get his act together later in the year to win the Travers (G1) and Haskell (G1). Lil’s Lad would finish second in the Blue Grass but miss the Triple Crown with an ankle chip. As for Cape Town? He would finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and ninth in the Preakness (G1) before being retired due to a fractured sesamoid.
‘Hope’ Springs Eternal
Harold Rose approached the winner’s circle that March afternoon in 2000 swathed in hugs, kisses, cheers, and tumult. The ovation started in the cheap seats of the grandstand and built to a crescendo of heartfelt affection by the time the 88-year-old greeted his Florida Derby winner Hal’s Hope. With tears in his eyes, Rose said, “I have realized part of a dream, to win the Florida Derby.”
For three decades, Rose plugged away as a trainer of mostly claimers. He loved this life, rising in darkness and arriving at his barn at 4:30 a.m. But just eight months ago while driving to the barn his car broke down – and so did his heart. Revived by paramedics, Rose underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. Three weeks after the surgery, he was back at his barn at 4:30 a.m. Rose admitted it was the good ones that kept him going, like the Grade 1 stakes placed Rexson’s Hope and Bonnie Miss winner Mia’s Hope. And now he thought his modest homebred Hal’s Hope could win the Derby.
Against High Yield, a $1.05 million yearling trained by the powerful D. Wayne Lukas Stable.
David faces Goliath. David beats Goliath by a head.
While Rose and his wife of 65-years Elsie celebrated, Lukas looked on with a faint smile.
“Heck, if I was going to lose, there is nobody I’d rather lose to than Mr. Rose.”