Generally considered the crown jewel of Thoroughbred racing in the American South, the Grade I Florida Derby is a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby. It takes place in March or April, typically five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, at Gulfstream Park in Hallendale Beach, FL. It is run on dirt at a distance of 1 1/8 miles, or 9 furlongs.
While the race has taken place under several different circumstances, it has been in existence in some form since 1952.
2021 Florida Derby
The 2021 Florida Derby is currently scheduled for March 27, 2021. It is not yet known if COVID-19 restrictions will permit spectators to attend in person.
Gulfstream Park, the Florida Derby Racetrack of 2021
The premier race track in the South, as well as in Florida, Gulfstream Park opened in 1939. Major races followed quickly. The facility added a turf course in 1959 and introduced what was, at the time, the world’s largest tote board in 1961. Another renovation followed in 2006 to add a casino to the track.
Located close to Miami, Gulfstream offers guests a Las-Vegas-style casino, several dining options, and shopping. It has hosted between one and three meets a year and has welcomed the Breeders’ Cup World Championship three times.
Gulfstream Park is also home to the Sunshine Millions and has been owned by the Stronach Group since 2011. A recent addition to the facility is a 110-foot statue of a Pegasus; it is second only to the Statue of Liberty as the largest such structure in the United States.
In addition to the Florida Derby, Gulfstream also hosts the Grade I Pegasus World Cup and the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf. Several other major Grade II and Grade III stakes are run here as well, including the Gulfstream Park Mile Stakes, the Holy Bull Stakes, the Mr. Prospector Stakes, the Suwannee River Stakes, the Hurricane Bertie Stakes, and the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship.
Many non-graded stakes races and handicaps take place at Gulfstream Park, as well.
Understanding the Florida Derby
More winners of the Florida Derby have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby than any other prep race. Colts and fillies who run well in the Florida Derby tend to attract attention from handicappers if they qualify for the Derby.
The near-Miami location usually means warm weather for the colts and fillies who might be more accustomed to training and racing in the North. Therefore, the Florida Derby can also be a good prep race for seeing how a mount will run in weather he or she is not used to.
The system of earning a berth in the Kentucky Derby is a complicated one. It stretches over several weeks and involves a points system scattered across several approved races. In the Florida Derby, the winner receives 100 points, the second place horse 40, the third place horse 20, and the fourth place finisher 10.
While it’s overshadowed in the national press by Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup, the Florida Derby is a major South Florida event that often attracts media figures and accompanying local celebrations and events. The undercard of the Florida Derby is typically supported by a strong array of racing, including the Grade IIT Kitten’s Joy Pan American Stakes and the Grade II Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Park Oaks for three-year-old fillies.
Other significant races include the Grade III Hal’s Hope, the Sanibel Island Stakes, the Grade III Appleton, the Grade III Orchid, and the Sand Springs.
Florida Derby Qualifiers and Why It Matters
The Florida Derby welcomes a field of 12 entrants who carry 122 pounds. It is open to three-year-old colts and fillies. This limits the entrants to races which are also eligible age-wise for the Kentucky Derby, making it an ideal prep race. Many horses who run in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in early March go on to enter the gate in the Florida Derby.
Florida Derby History
For 11 years, from 1926-1937, a race known as the Flamingo Stakes was called the Florida Derby. This ran at Hialeah Park Race Track. In its early days, the Florida Derby was not run as close to the Kentucky Derby; it took place in the middle of March.
The Florida Derby quickly became a proving ground for three year olds pointing toward the Kentucky Derby. In 2005, the race was moved to five weeks before the first Saturday in May.
The 2020 Florida Derby was officially known as the Curlin Florida Derby, named after the powerhouse racehorse who won the 2007 Preakness Stakes, the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the 2008 Dubai World Cup. He was the Eclipse Award’s Horse of the Year in both 2008 and 2009. In 2014, he was elected to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.
The fastest Florida Derby was run in 1:46.80 by Gen. Duke in 1957, then a tie for a world record. Calumet Farm has owned the most victors, and the race’s winningest trainer is Todd Pletcher.
Florida Derby Historic Races
Notable past winners of the Florida Derby include many greats who went on to win the Kentucky Derby and even the Preakness or Belmont. Entrants who have won both the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby include:
Tim Tam, 1958
Carry Back, 1961
Northern Dancer, 1964
Forward Pass, 1968
Spectacular Bid, 1979
Thunder Gulch, 1995
Big Brown, 2008
Always Dreaming, 2017
Other major winners of the Florida Derby include Alydar in 1978 and Empire Maker in 2003, who went on to win the Belmont Stakes. Empire Maker also won the Florida Derby by the largest margin of victory in its history: 9 ¾ lengths. Although Florida Derby winners do well in Triple Crown races, there is yet to be a Triple Crown winner among them.
In 2019, the Florida Derby winner, Maximum Security, posted the fastest time in the Kentucky Derby, but was disqualified after impeding other horses during the race.
Florida Derby Greatest Upsets
The greatest upset in Florida Derby history took place in 1966. Williamstown Kid went off at 91-1 and won to pay out $183.60.
In 2012, Take Charge Indy upset favorite Union Rags to return $17.40. While the 2020 Florida Derby was not an upset, its second place finisher, Shivaree, was sent off at 80-1.
2020 Florida Derby Review
The 2020 Florida Derby, which was its 69th running, was won by Tiz the Law, who was sent off at 6-5 odds. Tiz the Law is owned by Sackatoga Stable, which also owns 2003 phenomenon Funny Cide, a gelding who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Conducted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Florida Derby took place without fans or even owners. Public events associated with the event were cancelled.
While the purse of the Florida Derby was $1 million in the past, the 2020 version was cut to $750,000 due to Gulfstream’s empty stands and shuttered casino. The rest of the undercard ran with reduced purses, as well.
The winner of the day’s big event, Tiz the Law, is a descendant of the impressive sire Tiznow, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice, was named Horse of the Year in 2000, and is in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. His name is a nod to both his mother, Tizfiz, and his sire, Constitution.
Tiz the Law was born in New York. A few weeks after winning the 2020 Florida Derby by a margin of 4 ¼ lengths, Tiz the Law also won a COVID-19 scrambled Triple Crown race, the Grade I Belmont Stakes. In 2020, the Belmont took place on June 20.
Tiz the Law’s performances in the Florida Derby and the Belmont made him the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, which in 2020 was run on September 5. However, he finished second. Tiz the Law did not run in the Preakness, which followed on October 3.
Here is the order of finish for the 2020 Florida Derby:
1) Tiz the Law; owner Sackatoga Stable; trainer Barclay Tagg; jockey Manuel Franco
2) Shivaree; owner Jacks or Better Farm, Inc.; trainer Ralph E. Nicks; jockey Emisael Jaramillo
3) Ete Indien; owners Linda Shanahan, Sanford Bacon, Dream With Me Stable, Inc., Horse France America, D P Racing, LLC, and Patrick L. Biancone Racing, LLC; trainer Patrick L. Biancone; jockey Florent Geroux
4) Gouverneur Morris: owners Team Valor International and WinStar Farm, LLC; jockey Joel Rosario
5) Independence Hall; owners Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Twin Creeks Racing Stables, LLC, and R K V Racing, LLC; trainer Michael J. Trombetta; jockey Joel Rosario
6) Candy Tycoon; owner Mathis Stable, LLC; trainer Todd A. Pletcher; jockey Luis Saez
7) My First Grammy; owner Maria Ines Mejia; trainer Amador Merei Sanchez; jockey Hector Isaac Berrios
8) As Seen On Tv; owner Screen Door Stables, LLC; trainer Kelly J. Breen; jockey Paco Lopez
9) Rogue Element; owner Calumet Farm; trainer Dale L. Romans; jockey Miguel Angel Vasquez
Entrants which were scratched before the race were Ajaaweed, Disc Jockey, Sassy But Smart, and Soros.
Final Thoughts on the Florida Derby
A social event as well as the nation’s premier Kentucky Derby prep race, the Florida Derby is a glamorous afternoon in the palms. It’s a major building block of Triple Crown racing.