In the middle of the state of Florida, there’s a wonderland of beautiful beings destined for dreams come true. It’s not Disney World—it’s Ocala and the surrounding area. Florida is a treasure trove of strong racers. The state’s balmy weather and lax tax laws make it an attractive location to work with equine charges. Its stud farms, pinhooking culture, and weaning operations have generated some of the best Thoroughbreds on the American landscape. Only mid-Kentucky and Chantilly in France produce more racehorses.
Formerly best known for its greyhound racing, Florida has pivoted rapidly to further enhance its reputation as not only a palm tree-studded center for temperate winter racing, but also a home for generations of reputable breeders, pinhookers, and trainers.
No less than the mighty Affirmed, who won the Triple Crown in 1978, was born in Florida. More recently, contender Limehouse made his mark in his own home state with the great Pat Day on his back. Silver Charm is a Florida boy who came close to the Triple Crown with Gary Stevens. Studs Dr. Fager, Holy Bull, Skip Away, and Afleet Alex are all Florida breds.
Today, almost 500 horse farms, the vast majority of the family-run and locally owned, call Ocala home. The industry employs nearly 27,000 people. Indeed, it’s a rare Kentucky Derby that goes off without at least one Florida born horse in the gate.
Florida Horse Racing
Florida is home to several tracks that host live horseracing. Since the state has become a worldwide destination for family tourism within the past five decades, its tracks aren’t quite steeped in history as its Northeastern counterparts. Others have been in operation long before the tourist circus came to Orlando. However, these newer facilities have quickly established themselves as mainstays of American thoroughbred racing. Quarter horse racing takes place in several areas and hold to Florida’s past as part of the Southern states. Others, such as Pompano Park, feature harness racing
Owing to its popularity as a retirement site, Florida is home to many off-track racing and betting sites. Streaming play is an option in most areas throughout the state, and patrons can enjoy Florida sunshine while laying down bets on winter racing in New York. Some tribal lands offer casinos with live race-betting options as well.
More recently, Florida began adding non-tribal casinos and Las Vegas style betting options to its racetracks. While these can seem worlds away from the glamor of tony Gulfstream Park and the throwback country aura of Ocala, they showcase Florida horse racing’s vast diversity.
Florida Gambling Laws
Its colonial history dating back hundreds of years and location “at the end of America” has long meant that Florida has followed its own rules. However, the state is bound by federal as well as state gaming laws.
Gaming houses and rental of establishments for gambling are prohibited, and minors and those under guardianship are not permitted to gamble. These bans extend to senile, intellectually disabled, mentally ill, or under the heavy influence under alcohol or drugs. Debts owned under such games as penny-ante are not enforceable by law.
At state-licensed pari-mutual betting sites, clients are permitted to take part in poker and other card games, including dominoes. Tournaments allowing card-based games are also allowed in pari-mutual locations. The Florida Quarter Horse Racing association must enter into a legally binding agreement at facilities where live quarter horse racing occurs.
While Florida has no state income tax, taxes do apply to gambling income. Fees, fines, and a portion of pari-mutual facilities’ revenue are required to be placed into the Pari-mutual Wagering Trust Fund, including one-quarter of all income taken in by gambling permit holders. This money is then distributed to local municipalities and counties.
History of Florida Horse Racing
Florida’s soil is much more than sand, but it took a highwayman to see its potential. As in Kentucky, limestone in the soil of the Ocala area creates foals with strong bones. Construction magnate Carl G. Rose noted that what made for good highway raw material was also a fair basis for baby horses and grew the industry at the beginning of the 20th century.
A few decades later, Marion County in central Florida was home to over 30 Thoroughbred farms. In 1956, a Florida-bred colt named Needles won both the Kentucky Derby as well as the Belmont. Central Florida had arrived as a new frontier in Thoroughbred development.
The industry overflowed to the tracks about the same time its breeding program began. Spanish conquistadors brought magnificent horses to the area, but the first tracks weren’t built in the state until the 1920s. Glamorous Hialeah Park brought crowds in the tens of thousands to its ornate grandstand beginning in 1925 when horse racing became legal in Florida. Pink flamingoes were imported from Cuba to add a bright dash to lush tropical landscaping, and Hialeah was an iconic center of boutique racing.
The Depression saw the rapid repealing of gambling laws to bring in desperately needed tax money, and live racing multiplied. Florida racing was a fashionable weekend activity in the 50s and 60s. Florida was hit as hard as other states as Thoroughbred racing’s popularity began to decline in the 80s, but a handful of tracks held on.
Best Florida Horse Racing Tracks
Gulfstream Park Race Track
Hallandale Beach near Miami is Florida’s Keeneland, Saratoga, and Del Mar wrapped into one. Home to the Florida Derby, Holy Bull Stakes, and the Fountain of Youth Stakes, all eyes turn south for important Kentucky Derby prep races and big purses. When the Breeder’s Cup, Pegasus World Cup, and Eclipse Awards come to the state, it’s understood that the paparazzi will converge on Gulfstream.
Debuting in 1939 with dirt racing and expanding to a turf track 20 years later, Gulfstream introduced the Florida Derby in 1952. Its grandstand was renovated and updated in 1984, just as the Miami Vice-inspired tourist craze began to revitalize the area.
A second expansion began in 2004, adding slots machines and cardrooms to an expanded clubhouse and grandstand. Pegasus Park and The Village at Gulfstream Park were added in 2013-2016, a Disney-style undertaking which added statuary, fountains, and an upscale shopping mall to the complex. Gulfstream Park also serves as a concert venue.
A reliable favorite of the betting public due to its predictable weather conditions and turf, Gulfstream’s dirt track runs a mile and an eighth when its full circumference is used. Its turf course is a mile. It favors early speed on the inside, particularly over short distances. Todd Pletcher’s horses tend to do particularly well here.
Tampa Bay Downs Race Track
Small and simple compared to its glamorous neighbor to the south, Tampa Bay Downs is a downscale neighborhood track that still plays a significant role in the state’s Thoroughbred industry.
It opened as Tampa Downs in Hillsborough Country in 1926, a decade before Gulfstream did, and seems to survive against the odds. With a dirt course of a full mile and a seven-furlong turf course, Tampa Bay Downs lacks Gulftream’s glitz, but its grit has earned the affection of horseplayers the world over.
Tampa Bay Downs was appropriated for use as a training facility by the Army during World War II. It slowly made its way into the national consciousness in the 50s when it was frequented by sportswriters visiting Tampa for Major League’s Baseball’s spring training.
Tampa Bay Downs experimented with Arabian horse racing in the 80s and 90s, and its turf course, added in 1998, is regarded as one of North America’s finest testing grounds. Recent additions include a golf range, a grandstand elevator with an upgraded bar, and increased gambling opportunities.
Kentucky Derby stars Street Sense, Super Saver, and Always Dreaming established their bona fides at Tampa Bay Downs. It’s generally accepted that the road to Churchill Downs often runs through Tampa. As the home of two Grade II races and five Grade III stakes, the facility has also hosted many Eclipse Award winners and future Triple Crown victors.
Florida Horse Racing Season
One of Florida’s secrets to its success as a home to breeders and trainers is its welcoming temperatures, enabling trainers to take their babies outside for work almost 365 days a year. This same factor makes for a healthy season at the track. Tampa Bay Downs typically holds a meet from the end of November to the first week in May, while Gulfstream runs from spring to September. It sees most of its stakes action in the early to late spring when Kentucky Derby contenders come south to test their mettle.
Tampa Bay Down’s crown jewel is the early March Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, which runs for 1 1/16 miles and is considered a legitimate prep for three-year-olds seeking the Kentucky Derby. It runs on what’s known as Festival Day, which also features the Grade II Hillsborough Stakes, the Grade III Florida Oaks for fillies, and the Grade III Challenger Stakes.
Late winter to early spring brings the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, which points to the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Another Derby prep, the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, also takes place at Gulfstream.
The Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream is the apex of the state’s racing season. Considered a major prep for the Kentucky Derby, it is traditionally held in March or April. To date, 20 Florida Derby winners went on to take the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont.
Overall Thoughts on Florida Horse Racing
It took more than pixie dust to turn scrubby farmland and marshy coastal sands into a major force of Thoroughbred racing, but Florida is the sport’s king in the deep American south. Its unique mix of cultures, colorful history, and agricultural pockets make for a one of a kind contribution to the Thoroughbred industry.