The Original Florida Derby(s), 1926-1937

Mar 30th 2011 07:06 pm |


On Sunday, Gulfstream Park will host another edition of the Florida Derby — one of the marquee prep races for the Kentucky Derby. The history of the present day Florida Derby traces back to 1952. However, another race, also known as the Florida Derby, can be found in racing’s history books in 1926 and then again from 1929 to 1937.

The “original” Florida Derby took place on February 27th 1926 during the first ever meet at Tampa Downs (the same track that currently operates under the name Tampa Bay Downs and now hosts its own Derby). One of the original financial backers of Tampa Downs was Col. Matt Winn. It’s no coincidence that his name is associated with the first Derby run in the state of Florida. Of course, Winn’s name is synonymous with making the Kentucky Derby the most famous race in America.

The St. Petersburg Times previewed the first Florida Derby on February 26th 1926:

Saturday will see the principal feature of the spring meeting in the running of the $5,000 Florida Derby at a mile and a sixteenth. Some of the most notable thoroughbreds in training have been nominated, including Navigator of Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney’s Greentree Stable, Smiling Gus of the C.E. Durnell stable, Bagenbaggage, Col. E.R. Bradley’s smart entry and a field that promises fast competition. The Derby is to be celebrated in the proverbial way with a blanket of roses for the winner and Col. Harvey Meyers, president of the jockey club promised that the prize will increase in value with a total of $10,000 asserted for next year’s event.

The colt Torcher won the first edition of the Florida Derby. Torcher didn’t start in that year’s Kentucky Derby and the Florida Derby stood as his only win of any significance. He made 195 starts during a seven year career.

The head of Tampa Downs Harvey Myers’s promise of a $10,000 purse for the following year’s edition never happened nor did the race. Tampa raced only nine days in 1927. When the Florida Derby returned to a racing schedule in 1929, it was across the state at Hialeah Park in Miami.

The reports of the 1929 race claimed that it was the “first” Florida Derby — erasing (or forgetting) the race run in 1926. This is how the New York Times described the second “first” edition of the Florida Derby:

The race meeting at Hialeah Park reached its high point today when 8,000 persons wildly cheered the head and head drive for the wire in the first running of the Florida Derby which saw the favorite, Upset Lad, win by a nose…

…The Derby was the first event of its kind to be run in the United States this year and was the outstanding race of the meeting which is entering upon its closing stages….

Upset Lad, the son of Upset (yes, the colt that beat Man O’ War), ran third in the Wood Memorial and finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby. His win in the Florida Derby was one of only sixteen wins from 158 career starts.

The Florida Derby continued at Hialeah Park until 1937 when the name of the race changed to the Flamingo Stakes. During the period in which it was known as the Florida Derby — the most accomplished winner was the filly Black Helen, who won it in 1935. She also won the American Derby against colts that year and the Coaching Club American Oaks. She was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

In 1938, the first year under its new name, the Kansas-bred Lawrin won the Flamingo and followed that with a win in the Kentucky Derby.  This began a run of future Hall of Famers gracing the winners circle in what would become Florida’s premier races for 3-year-olds. The list of winners includes Citation, Nashua, Needles, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Buckpasser, Seattle Slew, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid. The Flamingo lost a bit of its luster in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, Thunder Blitz won the 70th and final edition of the Flamingo, the same year that Hialeah shut down due to financial problems.

So, the legacy of the “original” Florida Derby may have ended with the last Flamingo Stakes, but the tradition of brilliant three-year-old racing in the state continues at Gulfstream Park. The third “first” Florida Derby came there in 1952 and has proven as significant as any Kentucky Derby prep race. Eighteen colts who finished in the top three of the Florida Derby have gone on to win the big race in Kentucky.


“Stage Derby Event, Tampa on Saturday,” St. Petersburg Times, 26 Feb 1926

“Torcher Tromps to Victory on Tampa Downs,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 27 Feb 1926

“Upset Lad Annexes the Florida Derby,” New York Times, 1929 March 10

An historical timeline about Tampa Bay Downs can be found on their website.

An excellent piece of history from Valerie at Fillies First titled Transatlantic Routes is definitely worth a look…

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Florida Derby,Florida racing,Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history

One Response to “The Original Florida Derby(s), 1926-1937”

  1. John says:

    Another great piece and speaking of Bagenbaggage, here’s a picture of
    him. He was handsome devil!!