Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Florida Derby Winners

Legends
Northern Dancer in the 1964 Florida Derby winner's circle. (Jim Raftery/BloodHorse photo)

One of the preeminent prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held March 27 at Gulfstream Park, which hosts the Grade 1, $750,000 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill 'n' Dale at Xalapa.

The winner of that race will earn 100 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, with the runner-up getting 40, the third-place finisher receiving 20, and the fourth-place runner earning 10.

The race has been held at Gulfstream since its inception in 1952, and has always been run at 1 ⅛ miles on dirt. It has been a Grade 1 race since 1973. Fifteen Florida Derby winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming, in 2017, was the most recent one to pull off the double.

Let’s take a look back at some of the best winners of the Florida Derby.


NASHUA (1955)

CAREER RECORD: 30 starts, 22 wins, 4 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,288,565

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Nashua was destined for greatness from his birth. He was bred and campaigned by Bel Air Stud, one of the dominant forces in American racing at the time. His sire, Nasrullah, had recently arrived from Europe, where he was a top stallion, and went on to have a great influence on American pedigrees.

In his first season, Nashua captured year-end honors as champion 2-year-old male with four stakes wins, including a game head victory in the Futurity Stakes. His Hall of Fame trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, sent him to Florida to begin Kentucky Derby preparations. He won an allowance race at Hialeah Park then took the Flamingo Stakes at that track. Both times, he failed to keep a straight path in the stretch, which caused some consternation for observers. Many felt that he grew uninterested once he struck the front and that it may cause him trouble down the road. Nonetheless, he was sent off as the 9-10 favorite in the Florida Derby. The track turned up sloppy on race day, presenting a new challenge for the colt who had raced on nothing but fast tracks in the past.

It wasn’t easy, but Nashua prevailed. Usually close to the early pace, he was fifth, 6 ½ lengths back, in the early stages. As he neared the far turn, Eddie Arcaro began to ask Nashua for run and he responded. In the stretch, he drew alongside loose early leader First Cabin, then dispatched that rival heading past the eighth pole. Although Blue Lem delivered a stiff challenge late, Arcaro kept his mount to task and Nashua crossed the finish line a neck in front.

After a Wood Memorial Stakes win, Nashua was the overwhelming favorite on Kentucky Derby day but he finished second, defeated by up-and-coming California invader Swaps. Nashua went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Swaps went back to California and dominated his competition there, setting the stage for a match race at Washington Park in Chicago on Aug. 31. Although Swaps was the big favorite, Nashua avenged his Kentucky Derby defeat with a dominating 6 ½-length win. That victory ensured his status as 1955 Horse of the Year.


CARRY BACK (1961)

CAREER RECORD: 61 starts, 21 wins, 11 seconds, 11 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,241,165

In contrast to Nashua, Carry Back came from humble beginnings. He was a Florida-bred sired by the unassuming stallion Saggy, had a small frame, and weighed in at less than 1,000 pounds.

As a 2-year-old, Carry Back made a whopping 21 starts, with five victories. His biggest win came in the Garden State Stakes at Garden State Park, which was the richest race in the country at the time. That win earned him a second-place finish in the voting for champion 2-year-old male and established him as a top Kentucky Derby prospect.

Owner Katherine Price and her husband, breeder-trainer Jack Price, elected to prepare Carry Back for the Kentucky Derby in their home state. He won the Everglades Stakes and Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, then suffered a surprising defeat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Despite that loss, Carry Back was the 8-5 favorite in the field of eight for the Florida Derby.

As usual, jockey Johnny Sellers kept Carry Back well off the pace early. He began to uncork his rally turning for home but he remained two lengths off front-running Crozier in the stretch. Sellers called on Carry Back for everything he had and the plucky colt responded. He surged to a head victory on a sloppy track, much like the one on which he prevailed in the Garden State Stakes.

The Florida Derby win made Carry Back the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite. His small stature, small-time beginnings, and dramatic running style made him a fan favorite beyond the betting windows. In the Kentucky Derby, he delivered on his 5-2 promise, rallying from far behind to win by a half-length.

After his Preakness Stakes win, he was an overwhelming favorite to become the ninth Triple Crown winner. Unfortunately, he was injured during the race and finished seventh, beaten by 15 lengths. Carry Back returned a few months later and continued his strong form to earn champion 3-year-old male honors before winning major stakes races as a 4- and 5-year-old.


NORTHERN DANCER (1964)

CAREER RECORD: 18 starts, 14 wins, 2 seconds, 2 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $580,647

Northern Dancer was bred and owned by the seminal figure of Canadian Thoroughbred racing, E.P. Taylor. Taylor founded the Jockey Club of Canada and the new Woodbine racetrack in 1956. Taylor’s Thoroughbred holdings included his Windfields Farm breeding operation. It was there he bred Northern Dancer, a son of 1958 Canadian Horse of the Year Nearctic.

Northern Dancer dominated his Canadian peers as a 2-year-old with three stakes wins north of the border. He was shipped to New York near the end of 1963 and won the Remsen Stakes by two lengths.

Sent to Florida for his 3-year-old season, Northern Dancer won the Flamingo Stakes, prevailing by two lengths under Bill Shoemaker despite lugging in through the stretch. Off that victory and a subsequent allowance win, Northern Dancer was the 3-10 favorite in the eight-horse Florida Derby field.

Shoemaker gave him a great trip, sitting chilly off longshot leader Greek Episode in the early stages. That rival began to wane on the far turn and Shoemaker gave his mount the cue to go to the lead. Despite pestering in the stretch from The Scoundrel, Northern Dancer kept his rivals at bay and crossed the wire a length in front.

Northern Dancer won the Blue Grass Stakes then went to the Kentucky Derby with a new jockey. Shoemaker jumped off to ride heavy favorite Hill Rise, so Bill Hartack assumed the mount on Northern Dancer. In a dramatic stretch run, Northern Dancer edged Hill Rise by a neck, setting a new stakes and track record of 2:00.

After a Preakness win, Northern Dancer had a shot to claim the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes but he was a well-beaten third behind Quadrangle. Although his racing career ended not long afterward, Northern Dancer made his biggest mark in the breeding shed. He sired a then-record 147 stakes winners, including champions in both North America and Europe. Arguably his greatest progeny, Nijinsky II won the English Triple Crown in 1970. He was also known as a great sire of sires, with offspring such as Nureyev, Lyphard, Storm Bird, Sadler’s Wells, and Danzig among many others going on to great success of their own at stud.


ALYDAR (1978)

CAREER RECORD: 26 starts, 14 wins, 9 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $957,195

Alydar at Gulfstream Park in 1978.
Alydar at Gulfstream Park in 1978. (Jim Raftery-TURFOTOS)

A spectacular colt in his own right, Alydar had the misfortune to run into another champion, Affirmed, throughout his 2-year-old and 3-year-old seasons. The two met up six times in 1977, with Affirmed winning four of their meetings. To prepare for their respective Kentucky Derby bids, the two traveled to opposite sides of the country. While Affirmed went to California, trainer John Veitch sent Alydar, owned and bred by blue-blood Calumet Farm, to Florida.

Alydar’s 3-year-old campaign began smoothly with an easy win in an allowance race at Hialeah, followed by a sharp 4 ½-length victory in the Flamingo Stakes. For the Florida Derby, Alydar was the 3-10 favorite against six opponents, including Believe It, who defeated Alydar the previous fall in the Remsen Stakes.

Alydar avenged his defeat that afternoon, attending the pace and pulling clear in the stretch for a two-length victory. His time of 1:47 was the second-fastest time in Florida Derby history, missing the track record by just a fifth of a second. Believe It, gave Alydar a challenge in the stretch, but was second and 7 ½ lengths clear of the others.

After a dominant Blue Grass Stakes victory, Alydar (11-10 odds) was the favorite over Affirmed (9-5) in the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed, however, prevailed by a half-length with Alydar closing furiously after falling far behind early. Affirmed subsequently lost the Preakness Stakes by a neck to Affirmed then engaged in a stirring Belmont Stakes duel with his familiar rival. Although the two battled tenaciously in the stretch, Affirmed won by a head to clinch the Triple Crown.

Alydar got a measure of revenge in their final meeting in the Travers Stakes. Affirmed crossed the finish line 1 ¾ lengths in front but was disqualified for interfering with Alydar on the final turn. Sidelined by injury for the rest of his 3-year-old year, Alydar returned as a 4-year-old but won only one stakes race and was retired before he could face Affirmed again.


SPECTACULAR BID (1979)

CAREER RECORD: 30 starts, 26 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $2,781,608

Spectacular Bid looked unbeatable on the 1979 Kentucky Derby trail. He was voted champion 2-year-old male the year before with five stakes wins. In his first two starts as a 3-year-old, he won by a combined margin of 12 ¼ lengths. There was no reason to believe the Florida Derby would be anything besides a layup, and he was sent off as the 1-20 favorite.

He had a very adventurous trip. At the start, he veered in and bumped the side of the gate. He recovered quickly, but was checked on the first turn then was rushed up the backstretch after the leaders by jockey Ron Franklin. Rather than moving up on the outside of the leaders, Franklin tried to send him through on the rail and had to check again due to a lack of racing room. He then took him back then moved him four wide entering the stretch, where Spectacular Bid drew off to an easy win. “The Bid” won by 4 ½ lengths but it could have been a lot more had he not encountered so much traffic.

The Bid won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes as an overwhelming favorite both times, and a Triple Crown sweep looked like a lock. After another tough trip, he flattened out to finish third in the Belmont Stakes. A champion at both 2 and 3, Spectacular Bid did his best work as a 4-year-old with a perfect 9-for-9 Horse of the Year campaign that included a world-record performance in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita Park.


SWALE (1984)

CAREER RECORD: 14 starts, 9 wins, 2 seconds, 2 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,583,660

Swale wins the Saratoga Special as a 2-year-old.
Swale wins the Saratoga Special as a 2-year-old. (Bob Coglianese/BloodHorse)

Legendary trainer Woody Stephens looked like he had them surrounded going into the 1984 Kentucky Derby trail. He trained Swale, an imposing black colt owned and bred by Claiborne Farm. Swale won four graded stakes as a 2-year-old, three of them by a head or less.

However, he was dwarfed in everyone’s mind, including his trainer’s, by the brilliant Devil’s Bag. He was a perfect 5-for-5 as a 2-year-old with three stakes wins, highlighted by a jaw-dropping six-length win in the Champagne Stakes. That day, he covered a mile in 1:34 ⅕, setting a new stakes record. Named champion 2-year-old male, Devil’s Bag was second in the voting for Horse of the Year and was syndicated for a record $36 million. Stephens sent both of his colts to Florida, considering Swale the second banana and intending to keep the two apart from each other until the Kentucky Derby.

The media fawned over Devil’s Bag’s every move that winter, to the point where the New York Times had a recurring series tracking his progress. He won his 3-year-old debut impressively but was a shocking fourth in the Flamingo Stakes as the 3-10 favorite. Despite the defeat, Stephens insisted Devil’s Bag was the best 3-year-old in the country, and continued to downplay Swale.

Swale attracted little buzz when he won the Hutcheson Stakes by eight lengths, four days after the Flamingo, and was a surprising third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Perhaps spooked by the defeat, bettors sent him off as the 2.70-1 second choice in the Florida Derby. Dr. Carter, a highly-regarded colt who was second in the Flamingo, was sent off as the favorite. Swale got a new jockey for the Florida Derby after regular rider Eddie Maple committed to riding Devil’s Bag. Laffit Pincay Jr. took the mount on the talented Claiborne colt instead.

Swale bounced back in the Florida Derby. He rated off Fountain of Youth winner Darn the Alarm in the early stages then assumed control in the stretch when the pacesetter faded. Dr. Carter drew alongside and gave him a stiff challenge in the stretch. In a dramatic two-horse battle, Swale got the upper hand late, winning by half a length in 1:47 ⅗, which was the fastest Florida Derby time since Alydar.

Devil’s Bag suffered a career-ending injury just before the Kentucky Derby, leaving Swale as Stephens’ best hope. He turned in a career-best effort on the first Saturday in May, drawing off in the stretch to an impressive 3 ¼-length win to give Stephens his second Derby win. After a disappointing Preakness Stakes, Swale won the Belmont Stakes by four lengths in a spell-binding, gate-to-wire effort. He ran the first half of the race and the second half in an identical time of 1:13 ⅖, an unusual accomplishment for any race. Sadly, Swale died of a suspected heart attack eight days after his Belmont win.


UNBRIDLED (1990)

CAREER RECORD: 24 starts, 8 wins, 6 seconds, 6 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $4,489,475

Unbridled passing Summer Squall in Kentucky Derby. (Anne Eberhardt/Blood-Horse)

Unbridled was a mixed bag heading into the 1990 Florida Derby. The Florida-bred colt had won only one stakes race and most recently had run third, beaten by a half-length, in a traffic-marred Fountain of Youth Stakes. He looked like the type with a lot of potential, but he hadn’t proven much yet. In a wide-open betting race, Unbridled went off at 5-2 odds, the co-second choice, in the 1990 Florida Derby.

Pat Day, riding the colt for the second time, rated him in mid-pack off a slow pace. Turning for home, he brushed with favored Roanoke then drew off for a strong four-length victory.

After a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, Unbridled was considered an outsider going into the Kentucky Derby. Blue Grass winner Summer Squall and Mister Frisky, from California by way of Puerto Rico, were the favorites, while Unbridled was 10.80-1 under jockey Craig Perret, who took over for the Summer Squall-bound Pat Day.

Perret’s horse proved best on Derby day, however. He closed from mid-pack, made a strong move for the lead on the turn, and then he blew past Summer Squall and drew away to a 3 ½-length win. He was the first Derby winner for owner Frances Genter and trainer Carl Nafzger.

Later in his 3-year-old season, Unbridled added another major victory to his resume. With Day back in the saddle, he threaded his way through horses to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He remains one of four horses to win the Derby and the Classic in the same year.


HOLY BULL (1994)

CAREER RECORD: 16 starts, 13 wins, 0 seconds, 0 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $2,481,760

This speedy gray Florida-bred had something to prove heading into the 1994 Florida Derby. As a 2-year-old, “the Bull” was a perfect 4-for-4, including a defeat of 2-year-old champion Dehere in the Futurity Stakes. Holy Bull started his 3-year-old season with a win in the Hutcheson Stakes but flipped his palate in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and had trouble breathing. As a result, he finished a well-beaten sixth.

In a 14-horse Florida Derby field, Holy Bull was the 2.70-1 second choice behind eventual Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin. Mike Smith sent Holy Bull to the lead, setting very fast fractions of 22.52 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 46.16 seconds for the first half-mile. Despite the fast tempo, no one came close to catching Holy Bull as he won by 5 ¾ lengths. Immediately, Holy Bull became the Kentucky Derby favorite.

After a similarly dominant Blue Grass Stakes victory, Holy Bull was the 2.20-1 favorite in the run for the roses. A slow break and a wet track sunk his chances as he wound up a distant 12th. However, Holy Bull was unbeatable for the rest of the year. He won five straight graded stakes, including a brilliantly fast Metropolitan Handicap, an incredibly gutsy Travers Stakes, and a breathtaking five-length win in the Woodward Stakes to cap a season that earned him an Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.


BIG BROWN (2008)

CAREER RECORD: 8 starts, 7 wins, 0 seconds, 0 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $3,614,500

Big Brown stumbled onto the Kentucky Derby trail by accident. He broke his maiden at Saratoga in 2007 on turf and was scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in a first-level allowance on that surface at Gulfstream Park. The weather had other plans, and the race was moved to the dirt due to rain. Trainer Rick Dutrow decided to keep him in the race anyway and it proved a wise decision. He crushed the field by 12 ¾ lengths, leading some to call him a major Kentucky Derby contender despite not yet having competed in a stakes race.

Big Brown got his test in the Florida Derby. He was the 3-2 favorite despite the extreme outside post position in a 12-horse field. Kent Desormeaux aggressively sent him to the front and had him on the lead toward the inside by the time they completed the opening quarter-mile. He never gave up the lead from there, opening up on the field as they rounded the second turn. With minimal urging, Big Brown crossed the finish line five lengths in front, silencing any doubters and establishing himself as the clear Kentucky Derby favorite.

At Churchill Downs, Big Brown once again drew the outside post in a 20-horse field and had to come from a bit off the lead while racing wide. Despite those obstacles, he drew away and won by 4 ¾ lengths. After a similarly dominant Preakness Stakes win, a Triple Crown looked like a certainty, however, he was eased after a wide trip and did not finish the race.


NYQUIST (2016)

CAREER RECORD: 11 starts, 8 wins, 0 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $5,189,200

Owner Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez teamed up to win the Kentucky Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. A few years later, it looked like they had another serious Derby contender after Nyquist was voted the champion 2-year-old male of 2015 following an undefeated season that saw him win four stakes races.

After a win in the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita Park to begin his 3-year-old season, O’Neill elected to send him east for a run in the Florida Derby. Despite his impressive reputation, Nyquist was not the favorite. Mohaymen, off a win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, was the 4-5 favorite while Nyquist was the 6-5 second choice.

Nyquist silenced all the doubters in the Florida Derby. Gutierrez put him on the lead early while encountering pace pressure from a pair of longshots. Nyquist brushed off his challengers and drew off to a 3 ¼-length win, while Mohaymen struggled home in fourth.

Five weeks later, Nyquist made history by winning the Kentucky Derby by 1 ¼ lengths. In the process, he became the first horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby since Street Sense in 2007.

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