Very little has not been seen in the 142 years that horses have been prepping for the Kentucky Derby.
That is why what Mohaymen and Nyquist are poised to do Saturday is striking a chord throughout the Thoroughbred racing industry.
A search through the sport’s modern history comes up empty when trying to find a comparable example of what the Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park is set to showcase this weekend: Two unbeaten runners — the consensus top-ranked members of their division — meeting head-on in a pre-Kentucky Derby battle royale.
Silver Charm and Free House engaged in three prep race wars before running first and third, respectively, in the 1997 Kentucky Derby, but neither had widespread favoritism in the run-up to the first Saturday in May. And while Secretariat and his eventual Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes bridesmaid, Sham, did meet in the 1973 Wood Memorial, the fact that the former already was viewed as the clear class of his generation negated the “showdown” quality of the meeting even before both were beaten in that race by Angle Light.
To their credit, the camps of Mohaymen and Nyquist have said for months that they share a game plan neither was going to change just because the other had the same idea. Barring the improbability of a dead heat, one of them is going to suffer a blemish for the first time Saturday. Regardless who prevails, the sport stands to benefit.
“It’s great for the media and great for our horse industry. It’s not so great for (trainer) Doug (O’Neill) and myself to have to run them both against each other,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Mohaymen. “But it is a great story, and I feel like all eyes and ears will be on the Florida Derby because of that. We’ve stayed with the program we wanted to run in the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and we like the timing of the race … and obviously Doug does too. It’s going to be a great day of racing.”
It’s great for the media and great for our horse industry. It’s not so great for (trainer) Doug (O’Neill) and myself to have to run them both against each other. But it is a great story, and I feel like all eyes and ears will be on the Florida Derby because of that.
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Mohaymen
The official battle lines for what figures to be a prep race for the ages were drawn Wednesday as eight other 3-year-olds bravely passed the entry box to try to disrupt the supposed two-horse fight. Off the strength of his victories in the Holy Bull Stakes and Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, Mohaymen drew post No. 9 and was installed as the even-money morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 1 1/8 -mile Florida Derby. Reigning juvenile champion Nyquist was deemed the 6-5 second choice out of post No. 4 in the field of 10.
Two leading Kentucky Derby contenders not waiting to meet until the first Saturday in May is a precedent that has pundits salivating and questioning.
However, McLaughlin and O’Neill are taking the stance that this is an opportunity to enhance their charges’ résumés and get the truest of reads on their colts’ capabilities.
Owned by Reddam Racing, Nyquist has shown all kinds of dimensions in winning his six starts, three of which have come in Grade I races. His championship-clinching victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was an effort of pure mettle and class as he was bumped and lost ground early, raced wide throughout, and still powered home for a half-length win.
In his season debut in the Grade II San Vicente going 7 furlongs at Santa Anita Park, the son of Uncle Mo showed how impossible he has been to pass when he cut an opening half-mile in 44.49 seconds en route to a 1½-length win. As a graduate of the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale, Nyquist stands to get a $1 million bonus should he win the Florida Derby, although O’Neill says the timing of the race was more of a factor than the seven-figure incentive.
“The bonus does come into play, but it wasn’t the deciding factor,” said O’Neill, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Reddam Racing’s I’ll Have Another. “I know it sounds silly, but we love the five weeks out (from the Kentucky Derby), and this race would have been strongly on the map for a race regardless.
“I do think that Nyquist going to Kentucky (for the Breeders’ Cup) and facing the top horses of his era there, breaking from the 13 hole and not breaking super clean, being wide and still getting things done, that definitely gives us confidence going into Saturday.”
Owned by Shadwell Stable, Mohaymen will be facing Grade I company for the first time Saturday but has shown in his five career starts that he can handle whatever scenarios come at him.
McLaughlin has said repeatedly that he has yet to get the son of Tapit tired, and the gray colt was indeed barely blowing after his 3½-length win in the Holy Bull on Jan. 30. Despite taking a slight bump early in the Fountain of Youth, Mohaymen advanced as he pleased under jockey Junior Alvarado and again asked for little when he hit the wire 2¼ lengths in front.
“I’d rather face (Nyquist) later in the Kentucky Derby than face him now, but the Florida Derby is a Grade I, and that is a very important race for us,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t mind a stern test. It would be nice to have a little challenge, more of a challenge than we’ve had.”
That’s why you get up early every morning and go to the barn is for opportunities like this. To have that matchup five weeks before the Derby is awesome for the sport.
Doug O’Neill, trainer of Nyquist
If what looks evident on paper plays out Saturday, there will be obvious concerns about how much this race will take out of the two combatants going forward. If Mohaymen and Nyquist are the horses many think them to be going in, the five weeks heading into the Kentucky Derby should be enough to regroup and, hopefully, rematch.
“That’s why you get up early every morning and go to the barn is for opportunities like this,” O’Neill said. “To have that matchup five weeks before the Derby is awesome for the sport. Hopefully, whatever happens Saturday, these two and others will meet and it will just be a great year of top 3-year-olds battling. There is nothing wrong with seeing top competition before the Kentucky Derby.”
What: Kentucky Derby prep race
Where: Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
When: 6:48 p.m. EDT
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
Favorite: Mohaymen (1-1)
Florida Derby field
1. Sawyers Mickey 30-1
2. Fellowship 15-1
3. Majesto 20-1
4. Nyquist 6-5
5. Copingaway 50-1
6. Chovanes 30-1
7. Takeittotheedge 20-1
8. Fashionable Freddy 30-1
9. Mohaymen 1-1
10. Isofass 30-1