Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin took a few glances at his stopwatch while keeping a keen eye on the gray colt energetically galloping around the main track on a humid Friday morning at Palm Meadows Training Center. “Easy, Miguel,” the Lexington native muttered to himself, referencing the effort exercise rider Miguel Jaime was putting in to try to keep unbeaten Mohaymen under a good hold. “We’ve got a race tomorrow.”
In his five career starts, none have been able to successfully contain the colt who heads into Saturday’s Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park as the even-money, morning-line favorite in the field of 10. And while his equally unblemished rival, juvenile champion Nyquist, has been more workmanlike in his outings, each has yet to find a stout challenger heading into the 1 1/8 -mile test.
The easy thing for both would have been to avoid each other until the 142nd Kentucky Derby on May 7. But as much as some question the wisdom of having the two leaders of the 3-year-old male division face off in a prep race, making them dig a little to see what they are capable of is not the worst way to get them ready for the endgame in five weeks.
No matter who prevails in the Florida Derby, a question is almost certain to be raised in the aftermath about how much the effort took out of the pair. As much as no one wants their Kentucky Derby hopeful wiped out in the weeks before, a hard race can instill that extra bit of foundation a horse might need down the line.
One only need to go back to 2012 when Doug O’Neill, trainer of Nyquist, watched his charge I’ll Have Another get in a dogfight with Creative Cause in midstretch before just getting his nose down to take that year’s Grade I Santa Anita Derby. The mettle I’ll Have Another showed that day was elevated weeks later when he overcame post No. 19 en route to winning the Kentucky Derby by 1½ lengths.
“We are ready for the challenge and while you hope it doesn’t gut them, we do have five weeks to recover,” McLaughlin said. “I feel strongly that we know what we have. He’s the best 3-year-old we’ve ever had to this date.
“We want to win the race. If we have to empty him out, no problem. It’s a Grade I and we need to try to win one.”
The Derby Dozen
1. Mohaymen: If a speed duel does happen, don’t expect Mohaymen to be the one pushing the issue as McLaughlin is expecting the son of Tapit to have his usual off-the-pace trip. However, should Nyquist get his way on the front end, jockey Junior Alvarado aboard Mohaymen is going to have to be especially careful in timing his move. “We might have to come to him a little bit earlier,” McLaughlin said. “I didn’t think (Nyquist) could win from where he was at the first turn (in the Breeders’ Cup). But we have won at a mile and an eighth and we’ve won twice at this track. So we would probably be coming from off the pace.”
2. Nyquist: He has more early speed than Mohaymen and if he gets out to a clear, early advantage over a Gulfstream surface that can play favorably for those on the front end, even Mohaymen might have trouble reeling in and passing a horse who has never let horses go by. “Mario (jockey Gutierrez) knows Nyquist better than any of us so he’s going to leave there with confidence and then just kind of has to play it by ear,” O’Neill said. “When Mario leaves the paddock on Nyquist it’s all up to him on how the race unfolds.”
3. Danzing Candy: Went faster than trainer Cliff Sise Jr. wanted to see last Saturday when he drilled 5 furlongs in :58.60 in preparation for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9. “I wanted to go in like a minute and change, but he got some air in him today,” Sise said.
4. Mor Spirit: Has been much more serious in his last couple of works, the most recent being a bullet 5-furlong move in :59 flat Wednesday. When Bob Baffert starts tightening the screws as he appears to be on this one, ignore at your own risk next time out.
5. Cupid: Covered 4 furlongs in :50 flat Thursday at Santa Anita Park in his first move since his win in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 19. The son of Tapit is an impressive mover to watch gallop, and his maiden win on Feb. 7 showed he can be just as effective if asked to rate.
6. Gun Runner: The only reason the son of Candy Ride is not rated higher off his win in the Grade II Louisiana Derby is because of the six-week layoff he is facing heading into the Kentucky Derby — something only Animal Kingdom and Needles have done successfully since 1929. Putting history aside, Gun Runner had every right to improve off the Risen Star and he did exactly that, rating third early on and then drawing off for a 4½-length victory. A horse whose winning margins increase as the distances increase merits a ton of respect. “The good thing is he’s very easy to manage,” jockey Florent Geroux said after the race. “He is so easy to manage and has so many gears. He settles really nicely, and when you ask him to go he has a nice turn of foot.”
7. Destin: Trainer Todd Pletcher is reportedly considering not giving the son of Giant’s Causeway one more prep and training him into the Kentucky Derby off his Tampa Bay Derby victory. Pletcher tried the eight-week gap before in 2007 with Circular Quay when that one won the Louisiana Derby on March 10 and ran fifth in the first leg of the Triple Crown on May 5. If six weeks is cause for concern, eight weeks could be reason for angst for those on this colt’s bandwagon.
8. Zulu: A decision on his next prep race has yet to be finalized but the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 9 seems likely. The Blue Grass isn’t coming up wildly tough, if Zulu indeed lands there, so there is a chance for him to get some added foundation without being knocked out in what will be his fourth career start.
9. Shagaf: Put down a 5-furlong work in a bullet 1:00.10 over the Belmont training track on March 26, fastest of 52 moves at the distance. The Gotham Stakes winner isn’t a horse who has a history of blowing you away on the worktab, but his current time is similar to what he was clocking leading into his 6-length maiden victory at Aqueduct on Nov. 22. The Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9 is next.
10. Mo Tom: He has become a puzzle to judge given the horrific trips he has had in his last two starts. To his credit, jockey Corey Lanerie took the blame for the Louisiana Derby outing when the son of Uncle Mo was stopped midstretch while trying to go through a hole on the inside. He keeps showing tremendous grit in the face of adversity that keeps finding him. And there are a lot of pitfalls to be found in a 20-horse field.
11. Whitmore: Honest runner who just hasn’t been able to get over the hump in one of these prep races. He’s going to face largely the same group in the Grade I Arkansas Derby as he did in the Southwest and Rebel Stakes so if he gets beaten again, it might be time to accept that he’s a cut below the top sophomores.
12. Lani: UAE Derby winners have a dismal history in the Kentucky Derby as China Visit (2000) has the best finish of them all when he ran sixth. It will be an uphill battle for this colt to end that streak of frustration but he does have a great, classic pedigree (by Tapit and out of a Sunday Silence mare).
The Next Dozen: Suddenbreakingnews, Exaggerator, Outwork, Dazzling Gem, Brody’s Cause, Fellowship, Tom’s Ready, Creator, Cherry Wine, Flexibility, Uncle Lino, Discreetness.
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