Ten Florida Derby winners during the past 54 years have won the Kentucky Derby. The first was Nashua in 1955 and the last was Big Brown in ’08.
But nary a 3-year-old who triumphed in Gulfstream Park’s premier stakes race, scheduled for March 20, captured the Triple Crown. In ’56, Needles came the closet. The Florida Derby winner, named for being inoculated often as a sickly foal, defeated Fabius by three-quarters of a length in the Kentucky Derby – the first victorious Florida bred.
But Fabius, eighth in the Florida Derby, upset Needles in the Preakness by three-quarters of a length. Needles took the Belmont Stakes while Fabius finished third.
The previous year, Swaps cost Nashua the Triple Crown by winning the Kentucky Derby by 1½ lengths. In ’58, Tim Tam missed out finishing second in the Belmont to Cavan with a broken bone in the joint between the knee and the hoof. In ’68, Forward Pass lost by 1¼ lengths to State Door Johnny in the Belmont.
I witnessed my first Florida Derby in ’57 a year after graduating the University of Miami. Gen. Duke defeated Bold Ruler by 1 ½ lengths and set the stakes record of 1:46 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles that was recognized until several years ago until the main track was expanded.
However, Quality Road’s winning performance in last year’s edition was a full second off Gen. Duke’s time. Even Quality Road’s track record victory in this year’s Donn Handicap was three-fifths of a second off the Calumet Farms’ horse 53 years ago.
On the eve of the 83rd Kentucky Derby, the son of Bull Lea came up lame and was scratched. Gallant Man was on his way to victory at Churchill Downs when Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and Iron Liege won by a nose.
Bold Ruler took the Preakness and Gallant Man captured the Belmont. Gen. Duke later developed the spinal affliction known as wobbles and died.
The most exciting Florida Derby I witnessed came in ’95 when favored Suave Prospect clashed with Thunder Gulch. It was a rematch following Thunder Gulch’s neck victory in the Fountain of Youth. The winner paid a generous $11.40.
In the Florida Derby, Suave Prospect was part of a three-horse entry favored over Thunder Gulch on my birthday, March 11. Jerry Bailey, back aboard Suave Prospect, was hotter than the summer South Florida heat scoring repeatedly. Mike Smith returned on Thunder Gulch.
Both horses stalked pacesetters to the far turn. Then Bailey gunned Suave Prospect from fourth to take the lead in the upper stretch by 1 ½ lengths. But under Smith’s strong handling, Thunder Gulch wore down Suave Prospect, prevailed by a nose and paid $6.
After finishing a disappointing fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes, Thunder Gulch went off at 25-1 and, with Gary Stevens aboard, edged Tejano Run, ridden by Bailey, in the 121st Kentucky Derby. Suave Prospect, guided by Julie Krone, ran 11th while Smith’s mount, Talkin Man, finished 12th.
Eskendereya and Jackson Bend, the 1-2 finishers in this year’s Fountain of Youth, are on track for a rematch in the 59th Florida Derby. How exciting it will be is in the hands of the racing gods.