Gulfstream Park opened its gates in the winter of 1939. The inaugural meet lasted only four days due to financial constraints.For the next five years the property lay in a state of ill repair.
In 1944 Jimmy Donn, a floral company owner and landscaper extraordinaire purchased the racetrack. He did not hesitate to put his skills to work. He envisioned a tropical paradise, one that would rival that of Hialeah Park, his competition further to the south.
More than 800 Royal palm trees were brought in to enhance the grounds. Flowering tropical plants added to the tracks allure.
Gulfstream Park became a resounding success, despite the fact that it was burdened with the later dates on the racing schedule. This became a prickly point of contention over the next three decades. The Florida legislature had guaranteed Hialeah the premier winter dates. The “Hialeah Law” stated that the track would keep the dates as long as it’s mutuel handle exceeded any of its competition.
With ownership of those dates, and a claim of being the most beautiful racecourse in the country, Hialeah’s position as Florida’s premier racing venue would prevail for the next three decades.
Jimmy Donn’s talents were not just limited to arranging flower beds. He had a keen understanding of the horse racing industry and how to promote his racetrack. He made the decision to present a major stake schedule that would compete with Hialeah’s signature races, the Widener Handicap and the Flamingo Stakes. In 1945 the inaugural running of the Gulfstream Park Handicap took place. It would become a major winter event for older horses.
A long line of champions including Armed, Round Table, Kelso, Gun Bow, Forego, Cigar and Skip Away were all hailed as winners of the prestigious race.
In 1952 Donn decided to add a contest for three-year old’s that would follow the Flamingo Stakes as a major prep for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. He named the race the Florida Derby. To draw the top Derby contenders, he offered a purse of 100,000 dollars. It became Florida’s first “Hundred Grander.”
To put it into perspective, the coveted Travers Stakes here at the Spa offered a much lesser prize of 25,000 dollars in that year.
The Flamingo Stakes was conducted in early March, towards the end of the Hialeah meeting. Donn decided to showcase his Florida Derby a month later.
It was the perfect timing for a Derby prep and one of the few perks of the later racing dates.
The 1955 version brought Belair Stables Nashua to contest the race. He had scored decisively in the Flamingo. Next, he notched the Florida Derby, becoming the first colt to take both events. He went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
In a nine-year period beginning in 1956, four great thoroughbreds would capture the Flamingo Stakes, and both the Florida and Kentucky Derby’s. The winners included Needles, then Tim Tam, Carry Back and finally, Northern Dancer in 1964. This illustrious group went on to win eight Triple Crown events. The Florida Derby had arrived. There is one running of the race that cries out for space here.
The 1957 version is one for the history books. Let’s set the stage.
Calumet Farms perennially sent out highly talented three-year old’s in pursuit of the Triple Crown Classic races. 1957 was no exception.
General Duke was an offspring of the great sire Bull Lea. Calumet’s renowned trainer Jimmy Jones called the shots for the brown colt.
Add the race riding skills of Bill Hartack, and a perfect storm for success was hatched. General Duke had his ticket punched, and was ready for a scenic train ride to the Sunshine State.
On the other side of the equation, it was Gladys Mills Phipps and her Wheatley Stables. This was one of America’s most recognizable racing operations. Mrs. Phipps had her Derby hopes in the form of of a colt named Bold Ruler. He was sired by Nasrullah, a revered name associated with the breeding of champions. The unmatched training skills of “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and the genius of jockey Eddie Arcaro were about to take the dark bay “for some fun in the sun” in Miami, Florida.
Hialeah’s seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes was one of the early Kentucky Derby tests for the sophomore class. Bold Ruler got the best of General Duke in this one with an easy five length score and a track record for the distance.
Two weeks later they were at it again. This time it was once around Hialeah’s one and one eighth miles oval. The Everglades Stakes quickly became a two-horse contest. Hartack aboard General Duke stalked his foe, laying a length off the lead for much of the race. In the stretch run Hartack hit the accelerator and just got by a game Bold Ruler.
On the first Saturday in March, the two resumed the series. They were gunning for Hialeah’s big prize, the Flamingo Stakes. In this one Arcaro hustled the Wheatley entry to an early lead. General Duke made a late run at him. It was too little, too late. Bold Ruler took a 2 to 1 advantage in their 3 meetings. Along with that, he set a track record of 1:47 flat for the nine furlongs.
Jimmy Donn and his Florida Derby awaited the two shining stars. On March 30, 1957, racing enthusiasts across the country had their eyes firmly fixed on Gulfstream Park. 25,000 fans packed the stands to witness the main event.
Late in the afternoon a field of five entered the starting gate to contest the race. The entries included Iron Leige, General Dukes’ stablemate.
The bell rang and Arcaro tucked Bold Ruler in, just off the pace. Hartack lay further back with a tight hold on General Duke. They continued that way into the far turn. Bold Ruler took the lead after a less than perfect trip. In deep stretch General Duke drove past his nemesis. When they hit the finish line, he was a length clear of the field. The tele timer told the story. The Calumet colt had just broken the Gulfstream Park standard for one and one eighth miles by almost two full seconds. If that wasn’t enough, the time of 1:46 and 4/5 had equaled the Worlds mark for the distance.
General Duke’s performance stands to this very day as the fastest Florida Derby ever contested.
This, unfortunately was the high-water mark in the career of General Duke. He arrived at Churchill Downs, looking to take a record seventh Derby for storied Calumet. After a disappointing outing in the Derby Trial, Jimmy Jones made the decision to scratch him from the big race. Calumet sent out the lightly regarded Iron Leige. Bold Ruler went to post as the even money favorite. It wasn’t his day.
He made an early run only to falter in the stretch. Calumet’s lesser known entry upset the field, winning the race by a nose over the brilliant Gallant Man.
Bold Ruler went on to a spectacular Hall of Fame career. As for General Duke, injuries dogged him on his path back to the racetrack. He was inflicted with a rare disease, Wobblers Syndrome, and passed in 1958. He was buried on the picturesque grounds of Calumet Farms along with the many champions the stable had produced.
The Florida Derby has become the go to race for the top East Coast Derby Contenders. No less than 15 winners of the race would go on to Kentucky Derby fame. Even more impressive is the fact that 30 Triple Crown races have been won by them.
As previously stated, the great Northern Dancer took the race in 1964. The list continued with these remarkable Florida Derby winners who raced to glory in The Run for the Roses. The names are familiar to racing fans. Calumet’s eighth and last Kentucky Derby Champion Forward Pass, the immortal Spectacular Bid, Swale, Unbridled, Thunder Gulch, Monarchos, Barbaro, Big Brown, Orb, Nyquist and finally Always Dreaming round out the list.
Gulfstream Park is no longer the track that Jimmy Donn envisioned many years ago. It has changed ownership several times. The Stronach Group now owns the property. It has become a twenty first century facility that includes a world class casino, boutique shops and a variety of fine restaurants.
The floral shop owner turned racetrack entrepreneur is long gone, yet the race that he introduced in 1952 lives on as a testament to his visionary foresight. The Florida Derby now has a purse of 1,000,000 dollars. With its long and celebrated history, it has become one of America’s great thoroughbred horse races.
A FINAL REMARK:
The world as we know it for now has been turned upside down. As with everything else, it has had a profound effect on the sport of horse racing. As the Corona Virus continues to unleash torment across the country, racing dates are up in the air.
As of now, the Florida Derby will be run Saturday at a deserted Gulfstream Park. If the race does go as scheduled, it will have no bearing on this year’s Kentucky Derby. That, as many of us know has been postponed until the first week in September.
We are all in the same boat in these unsettling times. There are much more important things to worry about than any interruption in the world of sports.
Let’s join to beat this virus. That is our main concern for the immediate future. Everything will normalize at some time, hopefully sooner rather than later. As for now stay safe. As a country we will get through this and be better for it.