A Debriefing on the Florida Derby

By: Paula Lewis

Visit Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

The last couple of years, I noticed that the arrival of spring meant that the buzz around town was surrounding the great outdoor events taking place throughout South Florida. Springtime brings the most exquisite weather of the year: sunny skies, warm breezes and balmy nights. One particular event that kept popping up in my friends’ conversations was the annual Florida Derby in Hallandale Beach, part of the Greater Fort Lauderdale area. When I first heard it mentioned this year, I decided it was time to check it out for myself; I wanted see what all the talk was about. It turns out that the Florida Derby is one of South Florida’s major social events to end the winter season.

Never one to shy away from a new experience, I was determined to tackle head-on the world of tote boards, withers, inquiries, handicaps, stakes and long shots. I have to admit that when I first walked into Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino in Hallandale Beach, I felt like a fish out of water. I asked myself, “What does this fashionista know about the world of horse racing?” 

In spite of this, I was not deterred. With my official racing day program in hand, I set out to immerse myself in the playground of Big Brown, Scat Daddy, Barbaro, Da’ Tara, Invasor, Skip Away, Empire Maker and Honest Pleasure.


In the first 60 runnings of the Florida Derby, 40 starters have gone on to win a remarkable 55 Triple Crown events. There have been 21 Kentucky Derby winners, 19 Preakness winners and 15 Belmont winners.

Gulfstream Park first opened its doors February 1, 1939, for four days. Opening-day attendance was 15,000. Fourteen years later, the Florida Derby became the first stakes in the state with a $100,000 purse, and Sky Ship made history by being the first to make it to the winner’s circle. Gulfstream Park has come a long way since then.

Race Day

Upon my arrival at the racetrack, I set out to find a guru to walk me through the process. I needed someone who would gladly teach me the basics – Horse Racing 101 – and was lucky enough to find Taylor Sage, a horse-racing aficionado and my coach for the day. Taylor is from the Northeast; he planned his Florida vacation to coincide with the Florida Derby. His passion for this sport was obvious after spending just a few minutes with him. He is also professionally involved in this arena, which made finding him feel like I had hit the jackpot. Lucky me!

Discussing the sport with him made me realize that racing enthusiasts track countless statistics about the horses, trying to narrow down the field to find that one exceptional horse that will win the day’s race. Take into account that the Derby historically draws between seven to 14 of the top Kentucky Derby contenders in the world. Florida Derby Day has become a celebration with purses totaling more than $2 million and seven stakes races featuring the top older horses and turf horses in the world as well. This is not an easy task; however, there are some general guidelines that can help you handicap the race.

First of all (for those who might be rusty with their racing terms), a handicap is a race in which, based on past performance, the racing authority assigns individual weights to horses in the hopes of creating an evenly matched race; good horses carry more weight. Handicapping is the process by which the determination is made. There are many techniques out there, which makes a novice’s job of handicapping a race that much more difficult. So, stick to the basics. It can be tricky, but very exciting at the same time.

I also noticed that there were a lot of people relying on an old standby – picking the horse by the name they like best if there were just totally confused. I have to admit, I soon joined this crowd.

The way I saw it, there was no way I could go wrong with names like Peaceful Russian, Bordeaux Bandit, Paradise Dancer, Rogue Victory, Big Drama, Danger to Society and Vanquisher.

After this experience, I am convinced that if you are a horse-racing fan, you should attend a Thoroughbred race at least once in your lifetime. The thrill you experience being at the track for the big event (in this case at Gulfstream Park) is worth the price of admission.

Wagering is not as intimidating as you might think. You can start by placing a $1or lower bet – some bets are .50 cents, and there is one that is only .10 cents – and work your way up as your confidence builds. I have to attest that, for me, the $2 bet was just as exciting as the big ones. I celebrated a $6 win just as enthusiastically as the guy next to me who won $275! 

Derby Fashion

To wrap up my Florida Derby experience, I need to mention fashion. A Derby is not a real Derby without the hats (usually large and dramatic)! Formal Derby fashion is steeped in history and tradition, dating back hundreds of years. Today, patrons of the Florida Derby and the popular Kentucky Derby put their fashion sense on display as soon as they walk into the track. 

Ladies, listen up! There are two important fashion rules you should follow to make a stylish statement at the Florida Derby.

  1. The hat needs to be original. If it is not a one-of-a-kind design, you should rethink your choice.
  2. Pair your hat with a classic spring sundress that matches your outfit; don’t go overboard with colors. 

One more important tip: The race will take place rain or shine, so make sure that hat can stand soggy weather if that’s what’s in store for you. Aside from those guidelines, show your personality with the hat and you really can’t go wrong.

Other forms of entertainment at Gulfstream Park

Gulfstream Park went through a major $240-million renovation in recent years. Horse-racing season takes places December through April, but even after the races have come and gone, different forms of diversion are waiting for you at Gulfstream Park.
There are six restaurants on site. Among them is Christine Lee’s, where you can enjoy Asian-inspired cuisine while overlooking the racetrack and gardens, and Ten Palms, which is known for its Sunday brunch and daily themed buffets – among them Asian, Latin, seafood and Italian. The others – Breezeway Bar and Finish Line Deli – are more casual.

Gulfstream Park has become a venue for live music concerts, so visit its Web site to check out upcoming events. Finally, the casino, which is open seven days a week, has two floors of Las Vegas-style slot machines and a posh poker room.
I don’t consider myself a betting person. Actually, I’m far from it; I tend to be on the conservative side of economics. Experiencing the Florida Derby firsthand introduced me to the fascinating world of thoroughbred horse racing. Even though I normally don’t bet on sporting events, I did try my luck with this race. I walked away with $18 in my pocket (I told you I’m conservative) but also with the knowledge that going to the racetrack is a great way to spend a day in South Florida.  

Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino, 901 S. Federal Highway, 954-454-7000, 800-771-TURF, www.gulfstreampark.com

  • Horse racing season runs December through April.
  • The Florida Derby takes place every year toward the end of March/early April.

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