Empire Maker among the most underrated Florida Derby winners

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

April 1st, 2016

So distinguished is the roll of Florida Derby (G1) winners that picking only five that are underrated historically was an arduous process. Here's the list, and feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below:

Empire Maker (2003)

A son of 1990 Florida Derby winner Unbridled and the blue hen Tossaud, the Juddmonte Farms homebred turned in an incredible performance to take Gulfstream's signature event by 9 3/4 lengths, and followed up with a narrow win over Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial (G1). However, foot issues compromised his training for the Kentucky Derby (G1), for which he started the 5-2 favorite, and he was beaten in the rematch with Funny Cide by 1 3/4 lengths.

Given time to get back to peak fitness by the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, Empire Maker was kept out of the Preakness (G1) and then stopped Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont S. (G1) on a sloppy track. A narrow loss in the Jim Dandy (G2) that summer turned out to be his final start as recurring foot problems forced his retirement.

Despite winning two of their three meetings, Empire Maker lost the Eclipse Award vote for best three-year-old male to the dual classic-winning New York-bred gelding.

Captain Bodgit (1997)

A prominent member of the brilliant three-year-old crop of 1997, the Team Valor color bearer rebounded from earlier losses in the Holy Bull (G3) and Fountain of Youth (G2) to hand the swift Claiborne homebred Pulpit his first career defeat in the Florida Derby by 2 1/2 lengths. Another convincing win in the Wood Memorial (G2) propelled him into the role of Kentucky Derby favorite, but he fell short of Silver Charm by a head after a thrilling stretch duel.

Like Pulpit, Captain Bodgit was not destined for a long career. He made his final start two weeks later in the Preakness, sustaining an injury while finishing third by a neck to Silver Charm as the favorite. Who knows what else he might have accomplished?

Cryptoclearance (1987)

Fans who cut their racing teeth in the late 1980s can't help but fondly remember this hard-trying son of Fappiano, who was constant presence in nearly all of the top races (and thus on their television screens) for three seasons. The deep closer was never as consistently good as Alysheba, Bet Twice, Lost Code, or Java Gold, but always seemed to be in the discussion if not the frame.

Looking back at his record, he clearly saved his best for visits to Gulfstream, Hialeah, Hawthorne, and the Meadowlands, winning the Widener H. (G1), Donn H. (G1), Hawthorne Gold Cup (G2) twice, and Pegasus H. (G1) in addition to his Florida Derby score.

Plugged Nickle (1980)

The son of Key to the Mint had a very interesting career. Winning the Laurel Futurity (G1) and Remsen (G2) late in his two-year-old season, he marched into the Kentucky Derby three-for-three in sophomore stakes company with blowout wins in the Hutcheson and Florida Derby, followed by a wire-to-wire score in the Wood Memorial (G1).

Up the track at odds of 5-2 in the Derby itself, he won four of his final six starts that season. A three-length victory over former sprint champion Dr. Patches in the Tom Fool (G3) and a half-length decision over Jaklin Klugman (with the highly regarded Dave's Friend third) in the Vosburgh (G1) swung a majority in his direction for champion sprinter honors.

A champion sprinter with nine-furlong wins in the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Jim Dandy (G3), and Stuyvesant H. (G3)? I don't think we'll ever see that again.

Bally Ache (1960)

His time in the public eye lasted just over year and a half, but he was busy and successful the whole time. Beginning his career in three-furlong "baby races" in Florida (he won a division of the Hialeah Juvenile in March), the colt compiled a record of 31-16-9-4 before his untimely demise from an intestinal ailment in October of his three-year-old season.

A five-time stakes winner at two with placings in the Sapling, Arlington Futurity, Washington Park Futurity, Cowdin, World's Playground, Champagne, and Garden State, Bally Ache rose to the top of the class at three with wins in the Flamingo, Florida Derby (defeating Kentucky Derby winner Venetian Way), Preakness, and Jersey Derby.

Second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the United Nations H. on turf, the latter just prior to his death, he was the leading candidate for champion three-year-old honors before a late-season surge from Kelso garnered that award and the first of five consecutive Horse of the Year titles.

(Empire Maker photo: Bill Denver/Equi-Photo)

Previously in the series, I selected five underrated winners of the Gotham (G3), San Felipe (G2), and Louisiana Derby (G2), and recognized the quintet of Rebel (G2) winners campaigned by Loblolly Stable.