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I love Florida Derby day. It signals the beginning of the final (and biggest) Kentucky Derby prep races, and the other races on the afternoon’s program tend to be outstanding contests between some of the nation’s top racehorses.

When I woke up this morning, I did have one dark spot on the horizon: the forecast for the afternoon was absolutely dire, with predictions of rainstorms that would make Noah nervous. I had a perfect line of defense, though: my tried-and-true rain boots. You see, nearly every time I haul these bad boys across the nation and slap them on my feet, the rain stays away and I end up with very hot tootsies but a very dry day of racing. 

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As I hopped into my little rental car and made my way down to Gulfstream Park at about 8 AM (I was getting there early since I wanted to see all of the action out of Dubai for World Cup day, since I am a glutton for all things horse racing) I was still a little worried, though – rain was pattering on my windshield almost all the way down the I-95 corridor.

However, once I arrived at the track, the sky had lightened and we were treated to a warm, if a bit overcast, morning. I hurried to settle into the press box so I could be sure to keep an eye on all of the World Cup action; plus, I wanted to make sure that I had plenty of time to explore Gulfstream and see what the Florida Derby day scene would be like.

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When I headed out to the track’s Grandstand after the first race, I realized I was in for a great day: the place was absolutely packed, and there were people there who were dressed to the nines. I especially loved seeing all of the great hats on the stylish women attending the races.

The first race on the program that I was really interested in was the third: it was a maiden race (meaning that none of the horses entered had ever won) for three-year-old fillies (aka female horses.) Among the runners was La Madrina, a half-sister to the 2013 Haskell Invitational winner Verrazano. As the horses neared the starting gate, I hurried to the winner’s circle as I wanted to see if she showed a promise of the same ability as her older brother. 

I wasn’t disappointed – when the race finished, La Mandrina was alone at the finish line, having left the rest of the field in her wake as she charged to victory. 

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The very next race was the first stakes race of the program, the Rampart Stakes. This is a 1 1/8 mile test for fillies and mares four years old and up, and I was finding it tough to decide who the winner would be. As race time drew near, the crowd surged to the rail abutting the track to take in the action.

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And, since the race was 1 1/18 miles, fans were also treated to seeing the horses start their race right before the finish line. I always love that: there’s almost nothing as exciting as the anticipation of waiting for the race to start, as jockeys and horses prepare to run and the starter (the person in charge of making sure the gate opens and the race begins without incident) tries to get the timing perfect for a clean start.

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As the fillies and mares swept for home, it was longshot Gamay Noir who dropped the bomb on everyone, paying $100.20 for a $2 win bet. What a score for whoever bet her!

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The next big race was the sixth, so I had a little time to kill between contests. I knew my friend Ernie Munick, who is a top-notch human and one heck of a handicapper, was over in the tiki area. He was there to play his guitar and help people play the ponies – or, as I said to him, to pick some tunes and some horses. So I decided to head on over there to see how his afternoon was going. Ernie was (as always) awesome – there was a huge crowd around him, and he was killing it on the six string. 

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After that, it was time for me to hustle back over to the paddock, since the Gulfstream Park Oaks was up next. This race is a qualifier for the Kentucky Oaks (The Derby’s sister race) and 100 points were on the line for the winner. There were some absolutely beautiful three-year-old fillies preparing to go postward in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, and I had a great time taking photos of them in the paddock.

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But I had a special rooting interest in that race: the #8 filly, House Rules. She’s trained by the legendary Allen Jerkens, whose horses have beaten the likes of Secretariat. He was the youngest trainer to ever be elected into the Hall of Fame, and he’s also just an all-around outstanding person. House Rules is the first big-time horse he’s had in a while, and I think the entire racing community is rooting for her and Mr. Jerkens to make it. 

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After the horses had paraded in the paddock, they headed out to the racetrack to head to the starting gate. After a mile and an eighth, the undefeated In Tune narrowly defeated House Rules in an outstanding finish. While I was disappointed for Mr. Jerkens, House Rules had put up one heck of a fight and now, with 60 Kentucky Oaks to her credit, she will be able to head to the Run for the Lillies if that’s where her connections decide she should go. 

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The next big race of the afternoon was the Sir Shackleton, a sprint race over the main track for horses four years old and up. I decided to try to take photos of this race from the turf course, just to try something new. It was a ton of fun, and I got to get some great people-watching in, too! My favorite group was the world’s most adorable race fans. Man, these kids were into it! It was so very heartwarming to watch them cheering home their favorites.

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Another thing I spotted when I was out on the turf course was some beautiful waterfowl. Yesterday I had spied a pink flamingo; today, it was a stunning pair of black swans.

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When the Sir Shackleton has run, it was Happy My Way who took home the victory in stylish fashion.

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Next up on the docket was the Orchid Stakes, a grass race for fillies and mares four years of age and up. This is a longer race at a mile and a half, and a true test of the horses’ endurance. At the end of the marathon, it was Anjaz who emerged victorious with jockey Rajiv Maragh aboard.

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Then came the Appleton Stakes, a one mile turf race horse horses four years of age and up. This time, the excellently-named Hey Leroy was the victor; I had to love this horse, because not only does he have a fantastic moniker, but he also has a beautiful face with a very distinctive blaze. 

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His owners were absolutely ecstatic to have won the race, unfurling a Venezuelan flag outside the Winner’s Circle to show off their national pride.

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Up next was the Skip Away, a 1 1/16 mile dirt race for horses four years old and up. This had attracted some seriously talented older Thoroughbreds, and I was having a hard time deciding who would emerge victorious. Since I hadn’t made up my mind, I decided to just enjoy the race as it unfolded, and I was in for a treat. 

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After a circuit of the track, it was Micromanage who romped, beating the rest of the field with ease and determination.

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The final race of the afternoon before the Florida Derby was the Pan American. This is another marathon on the grass, this time for horses four years old and up. There was major talent in this group, and I was excited to see what the race would bring. I wasn’t disappointed, either: the finish was a thriller, with Newsdad barely emerging the victor over a determined field of horses. 

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After that race, I fell in love with Newsdad a little bit: when he got back to the winner’s circle, his groom took off his overgirth (one of two fasteners that keep the saddle in place) and somehow the other girth came undone as well. Newdad stood just as still as a statue (aside from turning his head to stare at the undone girth.) I mean that’s a smart horse, and one who obviously cares about his rider!

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After that, jockey Joel Rosario and trainer Bill Mott shared a laugh as they headed into the winner’s circle to get their photo taken.

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And with that, it was Florida Derby time! As the Derby hopefuls made their way from the barn to the paddock, Gulfstream laid out the winning garland of orchids and accompanying bouquet: 

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After the horses had been saddled, they headed to the paddock to parade for fans, who were lining the walking ring to see horse racing’s bright stars. 

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Then it was time for the three-year-olds to head to the racetrack for the biggest competition of their lives. Underdog hero Wildcat Red was looking fantastic and very calm in front of the huge crowd: 

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And favorite Cairo Prince was a picture of equine beauty:

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As the horses went through their pre-race warm up, the Gulfstream Park crowd swelled at the rails. The place was truly packed to the rafters: there were even people on the roof of the building watching the race.

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And finally, it was time for the Florida Derby. As the horses left the starting gate, the crowd roared in a way that always gives me goosebumps.

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As the horses swept around the track and toward the finish line, it was a showdown between the scrappy hometown hero Wildcat Red and the regally-bred Constitution. While Constitution ended up the victor, I think there was a lot of pride in Wildcat Red’s gutsy performance. 

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When Constitution returned to the winner’s circle, his jockey Javier Castellano was all smiles as he rode his Florida Derby mount to get his picture taken.

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And with that, Florida Derby day was at an end. And wouldn’t you know it? My lucky rain boots worked! About 20 minutes after the race, the heavens opened up, but who cared? The best part of the day was already in the history books.

So what did you think of yesterday’s races? Did we see a Kentucky Derby winner here?

Thanks as always for stopping by, and I’ll be back next week with my diaries from Los Angeles and the Santa Anita Derby!

Image Description

Penelope Miller

I'm Penelope Miller and I'm the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America's Best Racing. I've been involved with the Thoroughbred industry for most of my life and I want to make sure that the great sport of horse racing is enjoyed by people all over the nation. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me in the comments section below!

Image Description

Penelope Miller

I'm Penelope Miller and I'm the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America's Best Racing. I've been involved with the Thoroughbred industry for most of my life and I want to make sure that the great sport of horse racing is enjoyed by people all over the nation. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me in the comments section below!

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