Derby horses in the final stretch, the crowd in a blur behind them.
On or before the first week of May commences the annual mass pilgrimage, complete with gloves, hats, and the occasional parasol inundating Churchill Downs in what can only be described as a devotion. The gaggle of excited onlookers, the smell of roses, and the rustle of stat sheets are everywhere as the Kentucky Derby thunders back into the public consciousness. It’s a fun week leading up to the big day, if a little strange at times. Suddenly everyone seems to be a keen horse enthusiast, intoning on sires, dams and discussing bloodlines with the gravity of a professor addressing a lecture hall. They peruse starting lineups intently, squinting and scratching heads at the rather odd names on the leaderboards. What is an American Pharoah, anyway?

Those who have spent their lives and built careers carefully breeding, training, and riding horses can even find themselves caught up in the fervor. Horses are hard work, and most professionals eschew going out for a party in favor of a comfortable bed and eight hours of sleep. But the Derby is more than just an ordinary party; it’s an event – a reckoning of near-biblical proportions vindicating all that work. Even the most unflappable, sage equestrians find it hard to resist the jubilant atmosphere, and perhaps partake in a mint julep and a bet or two.

A beautiful horse track in Marion County Florida.
Horses are a passion in Ocala, but more than that, the equine industry is also an economic juggernaut for the state of Florida. A recent study commissioned by the American Horse Council reported that the equine industry generates a stunning $12.8 billion to the state economy, and the Thoroughbred industry alone contributes $3.24 billion. Putting that in a comparative perspective, collegiate athletics – which are also a big deal in Florida, as anyone who’s been near Tampa or heard the cries of Gator fans knows – averages a total economic impact of $3.1 billion.  So arguably, horses beat Gators (We love you, Gainesville!).

The same study confirmed Florida, and particularly Marion County, hold strong positions as major equestrian and agricultural industry nexus, third only to Texas and California. In Ocala/Marion County, there are more horses and ponies than any other region in the US, and 50% of the 75,000 horses living in the Sunshine State are Thoroughbreds – literally the lifeblood of Ocala’s economic strength. The Equestrian Industry creates jobs, protects and preserves arable farmland and pastures, and has been instrumental in the success of businesses like Ocala Breeders Sales and the World Equestrian Center.

We’re especially tickled here in the Horse Capital of the World™ (a title that Louisville borrows for this particular week each year). Every Derby season is a big whopping deal for us, because every year there are always multiple contenders in the “Fastest Two Minutes In Sports” who were bred, raised, or trained in Ocala (Read more about Ocala’s long history with the Derby on our previous blogs from 2022 and 2023!).

Therefore, it really would feel like the Earth was tilting off its axis if there wasn’t a roster of local contenders, and this year boasts 7 Ocala horses among the starting 20:


Owners Tami Bobo, Julie Davies, and George Isaacs are from Ocala, Florida area. Bobo owns First Finds, a pinhooking operation and farm, and George Isaacs is the general manager of historic Bridlewood Farm.

Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. is Florida-based racing at Gulfstream Park\ Gulfstream park – hipódromo and is the 2023 leading Florida trainer by earnings with more than $2 million and co-leading trainer by black-type wins and overall wins.


Trainer Todd Pletcher’s family are in the business in Ocala, Florida. His father JJ Pletcher has a training center.

The horse also received early training at the oldest active Thoroughbred farm in the state, Ocala Stud Farm, under the tutelage of Joseph O’Farrell, David O’Farrell and Mike O’Farrell. This means Fierceness trained on the very track famed Florida-bred Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled trained, passing the turn where dreams are made, Dreamer’s Point.


Dornoch had his early education with Raul Reyes at his famed King’s Equine in Ocala that he operates with his wife, Martha, Reyes has tutored such stars as Hall of Famer Beholder.

At one point Reyes noticed Dornoch was not moving as well and figured out the juvenile’s discomfort was a testicular issue. As a developing youngsters one testicle did not descend. The simple solution was to remove it.


Joe Pickerrell and Courtney Roberts’ Pick View, LLC. was responsible for the short yearling purchase. They have been plying their trade out of the old Cashel Stud south of Ocala since 2011.

The horse is also a Colin Brennan Bloodstock graduate. (Colin Brennan)

Sierra Leone

The horse trains in South Florida at the famed Payson Park Thoroughbred Training Center known as Club Med for horses, in Indiantown. The track is rated as one of the top five dirt tracks in the country.

Part of the horse’s ownership, Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, and Westerberg, have had success with Florida-breds,including 2021 Florida Horse of the Year Golden Pal.

Another Florida connection is that the horse had his early training at Scanlan Training owned by David Scanlon, an Ocala horseman. His operation is also represented in the Derby from his sales division, Scanlon Training and Sales at Oak Ridge Training Center, where he pinhooked G3 Gotham runner-up Just a Touch.


Resilience trains at Payson. His jockey Junior Alvarado got his start in South Florida at Calder.

Grand Mo the First

He qualified for the Derby in Florida in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby finishing third. His trainer Victor Barboza Jr has been a previous leading trainer at Gulfstream Park.

His jockey , fellow Venezuelan Emisael Jaramillo moved to Florida in 2015. Jaramillo is the all-time leading rider in Venezuela, having won his nation’s Triple Crown three times out of the eight crowns. He rode in his first Kentucky Derby in 2016.

Mystik Dan

 Trained by Kenny McPeek had his early schooling at Silverleaf Hills Training Center ( Padua Stables near @The Villages, Florida).

Forever Young

 The Japanese runner’s dam Forever Young is by Congrats who is still looking good having pensioned in Florida at Persaud Legacy Farms, formerly Woodford Thoroughbreds. His progeny are still having success on the track and this undefeated Derby contender might be his best grandson yet.

Domestic Product

After his two year old racing, he took a break training at Florida’s Payson Park Training Center from December through April 20, prior to arriving at Churchill Downs. He is a de Meric training graduate.

If you’d like to check out the full starting lineup or keep tabs on any changes, go to the official Kentucky Derby page. You’ll find tons of information about everything from the race schedule to which hats are in fashion this year.

Also, if you aren’t able to trek to Louisville and want to watch the big day with friends or a party crowd, you’re in luck – unsurprisingly, Ocala has a fair few of them. You can join the Festival of Speed’s big May 4 shindig over at the World Equestrian Center, and WEC itself is once again hosting its famous Derby Hat Party on the hotel terrace on race day. Over at Castle Gate Farm, Florida Cancer Specialists is throwing its own Farm to Table Getaway, and if you’d rather stay at home or throw your own viewing party, live coverage starts on NBC, Peacock, USA and FanDuel on April 27.

Happy Derby Day!