In two weeks time the Florida Derby will be run at Gulfstream Park and this race, more than any other in recent American dirt racing, has been a proving ground for future stallions. Perhaps it is the hard, fast track surface at Gulfstream Park which requires a combination of speed and stamina that causes some of the best of their generation to rise to the top. Florida Derby winners often go on to win the Kentucky Derby and just as importantly they leave their legacy upon the breed long after their racing career is over (which let’s be honest is fairly soon for Derby Trail 3yos). The speculative breeder would do well to make a note of who wins this race as chances are we will be hearing from his offspring down the road.
I’m going to restrict my survey of the Florida Derby to the year 2000 and forward. Why? Mainly because previous winners don’t have much relevance to SIM breeders as they can no longer be used to breed horses. There are still DS options so just briefly the likes of Unbridled’s Song (1996) Thunder Gulch (1995) Holy Bull (1994) and Unbridled (1990) won the race.
2001-2003 produced the first string of significant winners as Monarchos, Harlan’s Holiday and Empire Maker won in succession. Monarchos would go on to win the Kentucky Derby running a faster time than any horse not named Secretariat. Harlan’s Holiday, although he died young, turned out to be a significant stallion and is today most notably represented by $150,000 sire Into Mischief. Empire Maker, though thwarted in Kentucky would deny Funny Cide the Triple Crown and take the Belmont Stakes. He would sire the recently departed Pioneerof the Nile who would in turn sire the first Triple Crown winner in almost four decades. It is interesting to note the success of the Fappiano line in this race from Unbridled to Unbridled’s Song to Empire Maker.
After two lackluster years, 2006-2009 produced another amazing group. The tragic Barbaro kicked things off and who knows what he might have gone on to become followed by Scat Daddy, Big Brown and Quality Road. That is two Kentucky Derby winners in Barbaro and Big Brown and two elite sires. Scat Daddy, another gone too soon, may still reach legendary status even with his small number of crops. Here we find another link to the Triple Crown as he is of course the sire of the undefeated Justify. Quality Road sired more G1 winners than any stallion in the world last year and even more impressive is his ability to get black type winners on dirt or turf, sprinting or going over a mile. Both Scat Daddy and Quality Road will have significant influence on the American thoroughbred, and perhaps beyond depending on what Coolmore does with Justify and Mendelssohn.
Zito stole the race in 2010 with Ice Box (he also pulled the upset in 2005 with High Fly) and I miss Zito, he was never afraid to take a shot knowing that you win 0% of the races you don’t enter. 2011-2013 was yet another stretch of influential winners. Dialed In, Take Charge Indy and Orb were the three with Dialed In leading the charge as the best of his crop in the breeding shed. Orb would win the Kentucky Derby bringing the tally of winners Florida has produced up to four although he has stumbled badly at stud and with a fee down to $12,500 he may not be long for the A league. Take Charge Indy was prematurely sent overseas before his runners hit the track which seems to have been a mistake considering the success they have had. He just figured prominently in both Rebel Stakes prep races being the sire of Long Range Toddy (DS Unbridled’s Song a Florida Derby exacta) and the grand dam of Omaha Beach is Take Charge Lady who is also the dam of Take Charge Indy.
We can only speculate what the winners from 2014-2018 will do as they don’t have runners on the track as of yet. This list is Constitution, Materiality, Nyquist, Always Dreaming and Audible. Two more Derby winners brings the total to six. Always Dreaming continues the Unbridled legacy and, it is interesting to note that defeated but still possibly spectacular wonder horse Hidden Scroll who will be running in the 2019 Florida Derby has Empire Maker as his DS. Audible is a son of Into Mischief so it looks like Harlan is looking to create a Sunshine lineage of his own.
Now you may say, well don’t all major Derby preps produce stallions with winners in equal quantity? I’m glad you asked because no they do not. For example, the Wood has not produced a winner on the first Saturday in May since Fusaichi Pegasus back in 2000. And, while Empire Maker also won the Wood claiming a certain degree of dual allegiance, the only major sire to come out of the race has been Tapit in 2004 (granted he is a pretty big one). Sons of Curlin have won the Wood the last two years. I don’t know if that means anything but it’s a nice piece of trivia.
The Arkansas Derby has produced two Kentucky winners in Smarty Jones in 2004 whose Triple Crown bid died in the deep sandy stretch at Belmont Park and American Pharoah in 2015 whose bid did not. Oaklawn’s premier race also featured the mighty Curlin in 2007, Afleet Alex in 2005 and Bodemeister in 2012 who did sire Always Dreaming but that quality is looking more and more like the exception rather than the rule.
Keeneland’s Derby prep the Bluegrass Stakes doesn’t produce Churchill winners. That isn’t hyperbole by me it’s just a fact. Zero this century. This has clearly been the worse of the preps in terms of winners becoming stallions, even the Wood produced Tapit. Harlan’s Holiday also won this and after him I really will struggle to find a sire worth mentioning possibly having to fall back upon last year’s winner Good Magic, although with the history of the race you have to be skeptical about his prospects. Mostly the Bluegrass produces the likes of The Cliff’s Edge, Bandini, Sinister Minister, Java’s War and I guess Carpe Diem if retired early sons of Giant’s Causeway are your thing.
But surely the Santa Anita Derby is the star, the creator of the jewels which ultimately adorn the crown. You may be forgiven for thinking that because it has produced three Kentucky winners in the last six years. Alas that is more of a recency bias because it had zero trips to the winner circle before I’ll Have Another in 2012. California Chrome won in 2014 and then Justify last year. Before that the race was more known for either upset favorites like Point Given and Pioneerof the Nile or stamina heavy but slow plodders like Tiago or Brother Derek. Pioneerof the Nile is the only stallion of significance to come out of the race until we see what happens with recent winners Justify and Exaggerator. Chrome has received a lot of support, 280 mares in his first two books but will they come out running?
Florida’s signature 3yo event then stands tall as the most influential race in terms of producing winners and stallions for American 3yos. Keep that in mind while watching the race next weekend and know that whoever you watch cross that wire will most likely be showing up again, in one way or another.