03/12/2002 12:00AM

Florida Derby at the forefront

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Throughout much of its early history, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, which will be run for the 51st time Saturday, was overshadowed by the Flamingo Stakes at nearby Hialeah Park.

But over the past two decades, with the steady decline and eventual shuttering of Hialeah, the Florida Derby not only surpassed the Flamingo in popularity and significance, but it also has become one of the most important stepping-stones for the Kentucky Derby.

In the past 12 years, five winners of the Kentucky Derby prepped in the Florida Derby. Since the race's inception, 19 Florida Derby starters, including last year's winner, Monarchos, have worn the roses on the first Saturday in May.

While 13 Kentucky Derby winners ran in the Flamingo Stakes, the most recent was more than 20 years ago - Spectacular Bid in 1979. (Hialeah is not scheduled to open this year and its long-term future and that of the Flamingo Stakes remains in doubt.)

Test your knowledge of the history of Thoroughbred racing in the Sunshine State.

1. Gulfstream Park staged its first Florida Derby in 1952. Sky Ship, owned by the Brookmeade Stable and trained by future Hall of Famer Preston Burch, scored an upset victory before a crowd of 17,918.

The 1952 running was the first for Gulfstream Park, but it was not the first Florida Derby. In fact, two other tracks have played host to the Florida Derby. The first was a track designed by Matt Winn, the man who ran Churchill Downs for nearly a half-century.

Name the two tracks that played host to the Florida Derby before Gulfstream.

2. In March 1833, the Tallahassee Jockey Club conducted the first official horse race meeting in Florida history.

It's difficult to believe that it would be another 100 years before The Jockey Club would register the first Thoroughbred conceived in Florida.

This man, known affectionately as "Uncle Jimmy," helped build Florida's first great racetrack in 1925 - Hialeah. In 1936, he became the first person to breed and register a Thoroughbred born in the Sunshine State.

Name the man.

3. Gulfstream Park opened for business on Feb. 1, 1939 - in direct competition with Hialeah Park. More than 18,000 people jammed the new facility and the media described the event as the biggest opening day in Florida racing history.

Fans wagered $224,287 on the day's card and the track's president, John C. Horning, called the opening an unqualified success.

However, the next three days were a disaster, as fans - their curiosity satisfied - returned to Hialeah. There was no fifth day of the meeting. Financial backers dropped out and Gulfstream was shuttered.

The Broward County track lay dormant for four years until this man, a florist by trade, came to the rescue.

Name him.

4. Dark Star, who was unplaced in the 1953 Florida Derby, was the first Kentucky Derby winner to have competed in Gulfstream Park's premier 3-year-old event.

Three years later, this horse became the first Florida Derby winner - and the first horse bred in Florida - to win the Kentucky Derby.

Name him.

5. He was a barber early in his life. In the 1920's, he moved to Florida and went broke farming potatoes and cabbage. He returned to barbering and saved enough money to buy out a failing construction business.

Twenty years later, he was the head of the largest construction firm in the Southeastern United States. He also owned the largest cattle ranch in the region.

He bought his first Thoroughbred during World War II. In the years that followed, this gentleman became one of the most influential and honored owners and breeders in the country.

Name him.

History Answers

1. The first Florida Derby was run at Tampa Downs in 1926. The track was located in Oldsmar, a tiny community named for its developer, automobile magnate Ransom Eli Olds of Oldsmobile fame.

Torcher, under Sonny Griffin, won the inaugural running and collected a winner's purse of $4,450.

Even under the guidance of "Mr. Kentucky Derby," Matt Winn, Tampa Downs was a financial disaster and closed before its first meeting was scheduled to end.

The Florida Derby was picked up by the Miami Jockey Club at Hialeah in 1929. When Joseph E. Widener took over the track in 1930, he rebuilt it and named it Hialeah Park.

In 1937, Widener decided there were too many races in the country with the name Derby, so he changed the name of his Florida Derby that year to the Flamingo Stakes, after the famed pink inhabitants of the Hialeah infield.

Tampa Downs reopened in 1947 as Sunshine Park. It was renamed Florida Downs in 1965 and Tampa Bay Downs in 1980.

2. After he opened Hialeah in 1925, James H. Bright announced that he wanted to set up a Thoroughbred breeding operation in Florida.

At a party in Lexington, Ky., Bright said that someday Florida would produce horses as good as those raised in Kentucky. With not a single Thoroughbred breeding farm in the state at the time, Bright was laughed out of the room.

While a few Thoroughbreds were raised in Florida in the early 20th century, none was registered with The Jockey Club.

Bright bred three Thoroughbreds in Florida in 1935 and registered the weanlings a year later. A filly named Martha's Queen became the first Florida-bred ever to be registered. In 1939, she also became the first Florida-bred to win a race.

3. James Donn Sr. grew up in Scotland but came to New York City in 1909. He transformed his love for flowers into one of the most successful Fifth Avenue florist shops.

For health reasons, Donn moved to Florida in 1915 where he established Exotic Gardens, which soon became Miami's most chic nursery.

In the early 1940's, Donn - having been involved in the management of Tropical Park near Coral Gables - became interested in reopening Gulfstream Park.

After many months of hard work, Donn was successful in bringing racing back to the Hallandale Beach track on Dec. 1, 1944. Despite the obstacles faced because a world war was still on, the 20-day Gulfstream meeting was a success.

In 1961, Donn was succeeded by his son, James Donn Jr., whose son, Doug, succeeded him in 1978.

4. In 1956, Needles put Florida breeding on the map when he became the first Florida-bred and the first winner of the Florida Derby to capture the Kentucky Derby.

Owned by the D&H Stable, Needles also became the first colt bred in the Sunshine State to capture the Belmont Stakes.

Needles was by Ponder, the 1949 Kentucky Derby winner who, in turn, was by Pensive, the 1944 Kentucky Derby winner.

A year earlier, Needles became the first national champion bred in Florida when he was voted the country's top juvenile. He was voted 3-year-old champion in 1956.

5. The story of Fred W. Hooper winning the Kentucky Derby in 1945 with the first Thoroughbred he ever purchased, Hoop Jr., is part of racing lore.

While he was a major player in Florida in the 1940's and 1950's, Hooper did not open a breeding operation in the state - Hooper Farms in Ocala - until 1966, when he was almost 70.

He won three Eclipse Awards, twice as outstanding breeder (1975, 1982) and an Award of Merit (1991).

Hooper remained an active owner and breeder until the day he died in Miami in 2000, two months shy of his 103rd birthday.