April 16, 2024

Florida Derby: In Memorium

Retired Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero at the 2010 Hall of Fame Ceremony in Saratoga Springs, New York, on August 10, 2010 (c) Horsephotos.com/Harold Roth

It’s an exercise that could be done before every notable race throughout the year, but the situation racing currently finds itself in among the broader landscape of events offers additional time for reflection on those we’ve lost in the last year who made an impact on the history of the Florida Derby (G1), the featured event of the coming weekend.

The racing world most recently lost it’s most dominant Florida Derby winner in Empire Maker, who rolled to a record 9 3/4-length score in the 2003 edition under Jerry Bailey. The 20-year-old stallion died in January and had been standing at Gainesway Farm in Kentucky.

A homebred racing for Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms, Empire Maker followed in his sire Unbridled’s hoofsteps by winning the Florida Derby before going on to classic success. Although he did not emulate Unbridled by winning the Kentucky Derby (G1), in which he was second to Funny Cide as the favorite while dealing with the effects of a foot bruise, Empire Maker denied that popular gelding a Triple Crown sweep with a victory in the Belmont S. (G1) for trainer Bobby Frankel.

Among the former Florida Derby-winning jockeys lost in the past year was Hall of Famer Randy Romero, whose passing last August at age 61 was deeply mourned throughout the industry. Overcoming a string of major injuries on the track during his career and struggling to beat a multitude of illnesses off it in retirement, Romero earned the admiration and respect of many for his fortititude.

Although he never achieved glory in any of the three Triple Crown races, Romero had an opportunity to ride plenty of good 3-year-olds. One example was Brian’s Time, who Romero guided to a 32-1 upset over champion Forty Niner in the 1988 Florida Derby.

Dave Erb, the fifth jockey ever to win the Florida Derby when guiding Needles to success in 1956, died in November at age 95. The first national champion bred in Florida, Needles also won the Kentucky Derby, Belmont S., and Flamingo S. with Erb up, and earned division titles at ages two and three. Erb later turned to training, most notably conditioning the 1963 champion juvenile colt Hurry to Market.

Buck Thornburg, who twice won the Florida Derby as a jockey, died in late December at the age of 86. A winner of more than 3,400 races, Thornburg had been riding for nearly three decades when he captured a division of the 1977 Florida Derby aboard Coined Silver, and followed up three years later with a victory aboard Plugged Nickle.

Arguably Thornburg’s most notable mount, Plugged Nickle started second favorite in the 1980 Kentucky Derby after wins in the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial (G1), and Hutcheson S., but the future sprint champion finished seventh.