Saturday marks the day all of racing has been waiting for. The great matchup of champion Nyquist and up-and-comer Mohaymen is actually happening.
It’s not really a David vs. Goliath, Apollo Creed vs. Rocky Balboa or even Daniel-san vs. Johnny scenario. Think more like Coke vs. Pepsi, Hatfields vs. McCoys, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones.
Equal value, interesting battle.
Perhaps in search of stiffer competition or, perhaps, just in search of a $1 million bonus, Paul Reddam’s champion Nyquist arrived in Florida on Tuesday for his final preparations and his long-awaited matchup against fellow undefeated sophomore Mohaymen in the $1 million Xpressbet.com Florida Derby.
All winter long, Nyquist has remained untouchable, winning his only start and maintaining his position as the best of his crop. Moyhamen, on the other hand, has more recently set the racing world on fire with his five straight victories, making him the first legitimate threat to dethrone racing’s current prince.
Saturday’s weather in South Florida is calling for very warm and humid conditions with thunderstorms likely. As everyone who has followed Gulfstream Park racing knows, it’s hard to handicap when the weather can change faster than the breeze blows.
It’s hard to say anything negative about Nyquist. He’s six-for-six, is the reigning two-year-old champion, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) for fun, has taken on all comers and discarded them with authority, has never made a wrong move, is trained by a veteran Derby winner… the list of positives goes on and on. He was nothing short of brilliant in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (GII) in mid-February after a winter freshening and has trained expertly since. His question marks surround his pedigree and his fitness level.
Nyquist is from the first crop of Uncle Mo and, as we’ve all seen, his progeny have been nothing short of amazing thus far. Precocious and talented, they’ve been winning races all over the place. But Uncle Mo, while talented and also a juvenile champion, faltered in his only start at nine furlongs and the question about whether his offspring will go on persist. Nyquist is out of a Forestry mare and while Forestry was a talented horse, he was also a sprinter who has sired mostly shorter-distance runners, although his son Shakleford won the 2011 Preakness Stakes (GI). If Uncle Mo is to sire a longer distance runner, Nyquist is the one most likely to get it done.
Questions also linger around Nyquist’s fitness level. It takes a very fit horse to go nine furlongs, and with one race around one turn in five months it leaves even the best horsemen wondering. But it’s hard to question O’Neill’s tactics, as he knows what it takes to prep a Derby winner. If he wins the Florida Derby and goes on to win the Kentucky Derby, he will be the first horse to complete the San Vicente-Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby triple, leaving many wonder if there’s a reason it’s never happened before.
And, unfortunately, the toughest field in Nyquist’s career — the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — hasn’t produced much winning since. Of the 13 runners behind him that day, many haven’t raced and the others have yet to win. Only one has won (and that was an allowance race) and another — Exaggerator — won a $1 million race before finishing second to Nyquist in the San Vicente before a third-place finish in the San Felipe Stakes (GII). So it remains to be seen what will happen when horses that have matured since last year show up to run.
Though Nyquist has done some of his best running on the front end, he closed strongly to win he Breeders’ Cup and his number four post position only lends to jockey Mario Gutierrez being able to find whatever position most comfortable for his mount for the best trip. Regardless of whatever question marks remain, a win would not be a surprise.
Mohaymen has been a bit of a late bloomer, but what an amazing flower he’s become. Since breaking his maiden in a sprint last year, the flash gray $2.2 million son of Tapit has remained undefeated and improved with every start and with every added furlong. His last four wins came in Grade II company, all with authority, and he’s bested some really good horses in the process.
In previous years, Shadwell Stable did its very best to send a good horse to the Kentucky Derby by racing them abroad in Europe and Dubai. But after years of unproductive results, it decided to try the American way and prep in America, which has proven to be a wise move in the case of Mohaymen.
Anyone with even the most basic pedigree knowledge can tell you that Mohaymen is bred for distance, being by Tapit and out of the Grade II-winning Dixie Union mare Justwhistledixie. Hence, the stretch-out to nine furlongs should be of little concern. What is a concern, however, is that he’s never faced a champion the caliber of Nyquist and he’s a bit behind the eight ball in experience.
He’s risen to every challenge, though, as he heads into the biggest of his career so far. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has had tremendous success around the world and, though he hasn’t saddled a Kentucky Derby winner, he’s been close with Closing Argument, who was a fast-closing second in 2005 as the longest shot in the field at 72-1.
Mohaymen drew post position nine in the 10-runner field and he’ll need to be hustled up out of the gate to get his preferred position early, but there’s a good run into the first turn at Gulfstream going 1 1/8 miles and jockey Junior Alvarado, though a newbie aboard a Kentucky Derby hopeful of his caliber, has room to work with to achieve the desired position.
Mohaymen was installed the early even-money favorite, likely because he won the Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) and Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) in front of the “home” crowd, but, with the presence of Nyquist, there’s a good chance he won’t be post-time favorite.
Despite the heavy hitters, eight others entered the nine-furlong Florida Derby, including six maiden winners and one that has yet to reach the winner’s circle.
Fellowship has two career victories, including the In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes, and overall has hit the board in seven of his 10 career starts. The son of Awesome of Course has done his best running against restricted Florida-bred company and will have a significant class test in the Florida Derby, but his best may earn him a larger share of the purse.
The featured Florida Derby has been carded as the day’s 14th race and post time has been set at 6:48 p.m. EDT.