When it comes to prep races for the 2012 Kentucky Derby in the Sunshine State, Gulfstream Park is the Mecca of Florida. Even though Tampa Bay Downs also plays host to a couple of official Derby prep races, Gulfstream is the hot spot. The track’s winter meet features five graded stakes races restricted to three-year olds that trainers traditionally use to prepare their charges for the spring’s premier event: the Run for the Roses. Each of the five races is rich in history, and, with the exception of one, each has produced a Kentucky Derby winner. The Derby trail officially begins on Sunday with the new Gulfstream Park Derby, but after that, Gulfstream Park will ratchet things up with the traditional Derby prep races run around roughly the same time as usual and span a period of nine weeks between January 29 and March 31. The Florida Derby will be the last prep race on the Gulfstream schedule, and entrants will have a five week break before the Kentucky Derby.
Gulfstream’s first major Kentucky Derby prep race of the meet is the G3 Holy Bull Stakes, a mile one race scheduled for January 29, 2012. It was inaugurated in 1990 as the Preview Stakes, and the race was renamed in 1996 for Hall of Fame race horse Holy Bull. Since its inception, the Holy Bull Stakes has been run at three different distances. Go For Gin set the speed record for 1 1/16 mile in 1994, stopping the clock at 1:41.62; the mile and a sixteenth distance is the most commonly used distance for the race. Last year, Dialed In set the speed record for 1 mile, the current distance. He strolled across the wire in 1:41.62, equaling Go For Gin’s mile and a sixteenth time. In 2006 the race was ran at 1 1/8 mile, and Barbaro stormed home in 1:49.31 on a sloppy track, setting the speed record for the distance. Go For Gin and Barbaro followed up their Holy Bull speed records with a victory in the Kentucky Derby and are the only two Holy Bull winners to complete the Holy Bull/Derby double. Nick Zito holds the record for most wins by a trainer with 3 victories (1994, 1995, and 2011). So far, One Sock Down, Hansen, Tiger Walk, and Algorithms have been named as possible contenders for this meet’s edition of the race; the first three colts are probable starters, but trainer Todd Pletcher has indicated that the Holy Bull is the goal for Algorithms.
Next up on the schedule in the 7 furlong G2 Hutcheson Stakes slated to be run on February 11, 2012. The race was inaugurated in 1954 and named in honor of labor leader William Levi Hutcheson, who served as a member of the Gulfstream Park Advisory Board. The Hutcheson has been run at 7 furlongs and 7.5 furlongs. In 1973 Shecky Greene set the speed record for the 7 furlong distance, blazing across the wire in a blistering 1:20.80. Keyed Entry set the speed record for 7.5 furlongs in 2006, stopping the clock in 1:27.12. Jockey John Velazquez has won the race five times (2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006), and trainer Todd Pletcher has won the race six times (2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007); each man holds the record for their respective profession. In future editions of the race, if Velazquez has the call on one of Pletcher’s trainees, then that would be an almost sure bet. Each time Velazquez has won the Hutcheson he has been riding one of Pletcher’s charges. In the race’s 57 year history, only two winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby: Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Swale in 1984. At this point, only Mike Repole’s colt Overdriven has been named as a possible contender for this meet’s running of the race.
The G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes is scheduled for two weeks after the Hutcheson on February 26, 2012. The mile and a sixteenth race was inaugurated in 1945 and has been run at three different distances. Eskendereya holds the speed record for the 1 1/8 mile distance; he ran the 2010 edition of the race in 1:48.87. In 2009 the race was scaled back to a mile, and Quality Road zipped home in 1:35.01. In 1978 Sensitive Prince crossed the wire in 1:41 flat, setting the record for the traditional 1 1/16 mile distance. Michael Tabor, with 3 wins, has the most wins by an owner, Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey has the most wins by a jockey with 4 victories, and D. Wayne Lukas, with 3 wins, has the most wins by a trainer. Since its inception, four Fountain of Youth winners have gone on to also win the Kentucky Derby: Tim Tam in 1958, Kauai King in 1966, Spectacular Bid in 1979, and Thunder Gulch in 1995. Union Rags, Hansen, and O’Prado Again have been named as possible starters in this meet’s renewed edition of the race.
The fourth Gulfstream prep race is the G2 Swale Stakes. The 7 furlong race was inaugurated in 1985 and will be run on March 10, 2012. The race was named in honor of Claiborne Farm’s colt Swale. The Seattle Slew colt won the 1984 Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont Stakes but then suddenly died from a heart attack eight days after his Belmont win. The race has been run at both 7 furlongs and 6.5 furlongs, and Midas Eyes holds the speed record for the former while Eaton’s Gift holds the record for the latter. In 2003 Midas Eyes ran the 7 furlong distance in 1:21.06, and Eaton’s Gift ran the 6.5 furlong distance in 1:15.06 in 2008. Big Drama set a new stakes and track record of 1:20.88 in 2009 but was disqualified and placed second, so the record did not stand. Jerry Bailey also holds the record for most wins by a jockey for the Swale as well as for the Fountain of Youth; he won the Swale four times (1992, 1999, 2000, and 2003). No Swale winner has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. Repole’s undefeated colt Overdriven is the only named possible starter so far. On a special note, I will be at Gulfstream Park on Swale Stakes day, and I hope to see some of you there. Also, Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher, if either one of you happen to read this, please run Overdriven in the Swale. I adore this colt and would love to see him run in person.
The last and most important prep race of the Gulfstream meet is the G1 Florida Derby. The race as we know it was inaugurated in 1952, but its history stretches back further than that. The “original” Florida Derby took place on February 27, 1926 during the first ever meet at Tampa Downs. A colt by the name of Torcher won the first edition of the race; but he did not start in the Kentucky Derby, and the Florida Derby was his only significant win out of 195 career starts spanning 7 years. For the 1927 running of the race, Harvey Myers, head of Tampa Downs, promised a $10,000 purse, but he did not make good on his promise and the race was not run. Two years later, the Florida Derby was moved to Hialeah Park in Miami. That year, 1929, the colt Upset Lad, a son of Upset, the horse that notoriously beat Man o’War in the Sanford Memorial Stakes in 1919, won the race by a nose. He went on to run 3rd in the Wood Memorial and 10th in the Kentucky Derby and ultimately finished his career with 16 wins in 158 career starts. The Florida Derby continued at Hialeah Park until 1937 when the name of the race changed to the Flamingo Stakes. Under the name Florida Derby, the most accomplished winner was the filly Black Helen (1935 edition). The daughter of the legendary La Troienne won the American Derby against colts and the Coaching Club American Oaks and was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1938, Lawrin won the first edition of the Flamingo after the race had been renamed. The Flamingo Stakes, originally the Florida Derby, continued to be run until 2001, and Thunder Blitz won the 70th and final running of the race.
The modern Florida Derby was inaugurated in 1952 at Gulfstream, and since then the race has become known for producing formidable Kentucky Derby contenders. Twelve horses have completed the Florida/Kentucky Derby double: Needles in 1956, Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Northern Dancer in 1964, Forward Pass in 1968 via the disqualification of Dancer’s Image, Spectacular Bid in 1979, Swale in 1984, Unbridled in 1990, Thunder Gulch in 1995, Monarchos in 2001, Barbaro in 2006, and Big Brown in 2008. A total of 18 top 3 finishers have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. In 1957, Gen. Duke set the speed record for the race, speeding home in 1:46.80. Calumet Farm holds the record for most wins by an owner with 5 victories (1957, 1958, 1968, 1971, and 1978). Jockeys Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Jerry Bailey, Mike Smith, and Edgar Prado have all won the race 3 times a piece, and trainer John Veitch has also won the race 3 times; these six men hold the record for the respective professions. Though it is still early, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile first and second place finishers Hansen and Union Rags have been named as possible contenders for the 2012 running of the Florida Derby.
Additionally, Gulfstream will feature four other stakes races restricted to three-year olds. The first of these is the inaugural running of the mile and a sixteenth Gulfstream Park Derby Stakes on New Year’s Day. The races is worth $100,000, and entrants will carry 122 lbs. with certain allowances being made. Thirty three-year olds have been nominated to the race, including big names Alpha, Ancient Rome, Dullahan, O’Prado Again, and Souper Speedy. The mile and a sixteenth Kitten’s Joy Stakes on turf is set for January 21, 2012 and is worth $100,000. The Needles Stakes, a five furlong dash on the grass, is slated to be run on February 4, 2012 and is worth $60,000. Lastly, the G3 Palm Beach Stakes, a mile and an eighth affair on turf, is scheduled to be run on March 11, 2012. Of these four races, the Palm Beach is the only one that would count towards graded stakes earnings and help entrants gain a berth in the Kentucky Derby, and 2010 winner Paddy O’Prado is the only Palm Beach winner to ever hit the board in the Kentucky Derby.
Gulfstream Park is the place to be in Florida for prepping for the Kentucky Derby. The Holy Bull, Hutcheson, Fountain of Youth, Swale, and Florida Derby have produced 14 different Kentucky Derby winners with Barbaro, Spectacular Bid, Swale, Tim Tam, and Thunder Gulch all winning multiple Gulfstream prep races en route to the Kentucky Derby. Some of the nation’s top three-year olds heading into the new year are already stabled at Gulfstream, and, as a colleague of mine pointed out, Hansen and Union Rags are primed to engage in a rivalry that will perhaps be reminiscent of the great colts Affirmed and Alydar since they are both being pointed toward the same prep races. They have only met one time so far, running first and second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and they both have a lot of questions to answer. Many believe Hansen’s win was merely a fluke citing the fact that Union Rags covered more ground in the race while still finishing second by only a head. Overdriven, the G2 Sanford Stakes winner, is undefeated in two starts but has not raced since July. With his two named prep races being the two Gulfstream sprints, it remains to be seen whether or not he can handle the classic distances. G2 Remsen Stakes winner O’Prado Again has already proved that he can handle a mile and an eighth, so perhaps he will continue his newly acquired winning ways and knock off current front runners Hansen and Union Rags along the way. Perhaps Algorithms, One Sock Down, Alpha, Dullahan, or Ancient Rome will step up and run big. Right now, all we can do is speculate. The new year has not yet arrived, and there is still a lot of racing to be done between now and the first Saturday in May. If we can keep our top contenders healthy and sound, then the 138th Kentucky Derby should be a strong and competitive field.
Hansen, Alpha, and Ancient Rome have all put in recent works. On December 24, Hansen breezed four furlongs in 53 flat at Gulfstream Park, ranking 93rd of 95 for the distance, while Alpha breezed five furlongs in 1:01.03 at Palm Meadows Training Center, ranking 10th of 56 for the distance. Ancient Rome zipped through four furlongs in 48.24 at Palm Meadows on December 26, earning him a ranking of 1st of 2 for the distance.