There are 36 years of history to the Florida Sire Stakes.
There are champions Holy Bull, Smile, Big Drama, Awesome Feather and Brave Raj rising to national prominence in the series. Three Ring winning the Susan's Girl before growing into a Grade 1 winner. There's popular trainer Bill Kaplan heading to the Breeders' Cup after sweeping the series with Seacliff. Could anyone deter nationally renowned sports columnist Pete Axthelm from believing Sire Stakes hero What A Cooker would win the 1991 Kentucky Derby?
Thirty-seven years later, the Florida Sire Stakes – a series of stakes dedicated to registered Florida-bred 2-year-olds by nominated stallions – continue to thrive and inspire hope.
“A lot of dreams come out of it,” said Terry Meyocks, who was Calder's racing secretary the first year of the Stallion Stakes in 1982.
Said Manny Tortora, who retired as Calder's all-time leading trainer: “Everybody wants to win it.”
The $1.4 million FTBOA Florida Sire Stakes, formerly the Florida Stallion Stakes when held at Calder Race Course, kicks off Saturday at Gulfstream Park with the runnings of the Dr. Fager Division for 2-year-old colts and Desert Vixen Division for 2-year-old fillies. The six-furlong races each carries a purse of $100,000.
The series continues Aug. 31 with the Affirmed and Susan's Girl, a pair of $200,000 races at seven furlongs, and culminates Sept. 28 with the In Reality and My Dear Girl, with both to be staged at 1 1/16 miles and each carrying a purse of $400,000.
The idea for the three-pronged series was created in the late 1970s when Dan Lasater, an Ocala breeder and owner, proposed a stakes program devoted exclusively to showcasing Florida-bred juveniles.
The time was ripe,
In 1978, Affirmed became the first Florida-bred to sweep the Triple Crown. Florida had established itself as one of the nation's top breeding states in terms of foal production. And Calder, which opened in 1971 as South Florida's “summer track,” was searching for an identity.
It was a perfect storm.
Ultimately, Meyocks said, “it put Calder on the map.”
While Calder couldn't offer the kinds of rich purses necessary to conduct stakes for the nation's top older horses, its proximity to Ocala turned it into a natural haven for 2-year-olds just launching their racing careers.
As such, 2-year-olds dominated the South Florida racing scene.
“Probably 60 to 70 percent of the horses on the grounds were 2-year-olds,” said Meyocks, who served as Calder racing secretary from 1979-93 and is now president of the Jockeys' Guild. “We had 1,800 horses on the grounds and probably 1,200 of them were 2-year-olds. We ran five or six 2-year-old races a day in the fall. It saved us.”
Most – though not all – of those 2-year-olds were Florida-breds. A few of the exceptions included eventual Kentucky Derby (G1) winners Spend a Buck and Lil E. Tee.
But in sheer numbers alone, the Florida-breds ruled. And the Sires Stakes program gave horsemen an incentive to participate.
“It kept the better 2-year-olds in Florida,” Meyocks said.
Tortora, for one, went all-in on Florida-breds.
“I did it all with Florida-breds,” said Tortora, who saddled more than 2,000 winners at Calder, nearly twice the number of the next-closest trainer, and amassed more than $34 million in total purses. “All the money I made were with Florida-breds – horses that I either raised on my own, or me and my owners raised, or we bought in the sale.”
All told, Tortora started 111 horses in the Sire Stakes from 1982-2008. He won the very first In Reality Division (the pinnacle race in the series for colts) with Luv a Libra in 1982. His other standout winners included Boots 'n Jackie in 1992, Mecke in 1994 and Sea Emperor in '94.
“The Stallion Stakes is a big thing,” Tortora said. “I won my share of them.”
The series has turned out to be a launching point for a number of future stars. Among them:
· Smile, who was trained by Frank Gomez and in 1984 became the first horse to sweep all three legs of the series. He would go on to win the Eclipse Award as the nation's champion sprinter in 1986.
· Holy Bull, who shipped in to win the In Reality for trainer/owner Jimmy Croll in 1993, the year before he was voted the nation's Horse of the Year.
· Big Drama, who swept the 2008 Stallion Stakes series for trainer David Fawkes and went on to be named champion sprinter of 2010.
“It was not only important to the Calder program,” Meyocks said of the Stallion Stakes, “but it was also important to the Florida racing industry. Sales prices jumped, which helped the breeders. It effected so many people.”
Gulfstream, which took over the summer dates from Calder, has continued the tradition.
Tortora, who is retired and now lives in Ocala, has fond memories of the Sire Stakes.
“I miss all that,” Tortora said. “It's big.”
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