The definition of champion, according to Mirriam-Webster is: someone or something (such as a team or an animal) that has won a contest or competition, especially in sports.
After Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby (GI), with all due-respect to Mirriam-Webster, the dictionary company might as well edit that definition down to one word: Nyquist. And maybe include his picture, just for good measure.
With so many questions about fitness and distance and pedigree and shipping hanging over his head, the bay son of Uncle Mo showed the world exactly what it means to wear the coveted champion crown and silenced all doubters, leading at every call to win Florida’s nine-furlong final Kentucky Derby (GI) prep by a widening, if not awkward, 3 1/4 lengths over a field that included fellow undefeated star Moyhamen and eight others.
The Florida Derby was billed as the big matchup between East vs. West. Two talented and undefeated sophomores squaring off in the race of the year (so far): Paul Reddam’s Nyquist shipping to Florida to take on Shadwell Stable’s up-and-coming local star Mohaymen in what would be the final Kentucky Derby prep for each of them. Their connections, trainers Doug O’Neill and Kiaran McLaughlin, respectively, remained complimentary of each other’s runners and virtually quiet in the confidence they had, knowing from experience that any and all debates would be settled by their horses on the Gulfstream Park track.
And settle things Nyquist did.
Breaking alertly from post position four under Reddam’s go-to jockey Mario Gutierrez, the colt took command before reaching the clubhouse turn and, despite pressure from Sawyers Mickey and Chovanes on either side throughout, led comfortably at every call through splits of :23.60, :47.09, 1:11.39 and 1:36.38. Favored Mohaymen chased the pace early and launched a strong move as he rounded the far bend and nearly reached equal terms with the frontrunner, but was no match for Nyquist, who easily put him away at the quarter pole. Nyquist was then straightened out for the drive with clear running room to the wire, oddly drifted out in deep stretch under a stiff left-handed whip from jockey Gutierrez, switched leads a few jumps before the finish line yet easily prevailed in front of a wildly cheering South Florida crowd.
The final time for the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby was 1:49.11 over a main track labeled “good” thanks to the on-and-off rain the area received all day.
“I’ve got so much confidence in him,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve been working with him since he was a two-year-old and I feel like I know him a lot.”
Nyquist was the public’s 6-5 favorite and returned $4.40, $3.20 and $3.60. Majesto closed from mid-pack to claim runner-up honors, paying $11 and $6.20 at 21-1. Fellowship was good for $5.40 at nearly 17-1 when he crossed the wire another length back in third. The exacta paid $50 and the trifecta $77.30.
It was another four lengths back to 4-5 favored Moyhamen; and he was followed by Sawyers Mickey, Copingaway, Takeittotheedge, Fashionable Freddy and Chovanes. Isofass was eased before the wire but walked off the track under his own power.
The McLaughlin camp offered no excuses for Moyhamen’s first defeat, with jockey Junior Alvarado only saying he thought the gray son of Tapit may not have cared for the off-track conditions.
“He (Mohaymen) didn’t take to the track,” Alvarado said. “He didn’t like the moisture.”
In addition to the $600,000 winner’s share of the Florida Derby purse, Nyquist picked up a $1 million bonus set for any graduate of the the Fasig-Tipton Florida Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale who also won the Florida Derby. He remains undefeated in seven starts with career earnings of $3,333,600. He won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI), as well as the Frontrunner Stakes (GI), Del Mar Futurity (GI) and Best Pal Stakes (GI) and this year’s San Vicente Stakes (GII).
“You only got the bonus if you won, so we wouldn’t have come if we didn’t think he had a shot,” O’Neill said. “If you’re afraid to go up against someone, then how do you know if you have the Derby horse?”
According to O’Neill, Nyquist will ship to Keeneland on Sunday where he will begin his final preparations for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. Nyquist, as the reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, must also buck some serious history if he’s to be victorious under the Twin Spires in five weeks. Street Sense, the 2007 Derby winner, is the only juvenile champion to prevail in Kentucky Derby since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.
“He’s got the mindset of a champion,” O’Neill said. “So now it’s just up to the whole crew and the racing gods to keep him injury free.”