Showdown a No-Go as Nyquist Rolls On

The anticipated showdown matching the best in the West, unbeaten 2-year-old champion Nyquist, and the hero of the East, the also unbeaten Mohaymen, never materialized in last week’s Florida Derby. The $1 million race at Gulfstream Park showed that Nyquist was the best on the day and that he will carry his spotless record in the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on Saturday, May 7 at Churchill Downs.

Nyquist, breaking from the perfect four post, sprung from the starting gate, cruised to an easy lead and rolled to a 3 ½-length victory in a race that was in doubt only for an instant or two. Mohaymen, the other prime player in the showdown that never was, offered a brief bid on the far turn before he faded to finish a well-beaten fourth.

Unbeaten Nyquist, winner of the Florida Derby, arrived at Keeneland Sunday to continue his training toward the Kentucky Derby. Photos by Coady Photography | Keeneland

Unbeaten Nyquist, winner of the Florida Derby, arrived at Keeneland Sunday to continue his training toward the Kentucky Derby. Photos by Coady Photography | Keeneland

Trainer Doug O’Neill had the son of Uncle Mo ready to roll off only one prep race since last October’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. In doing so, owner J. Paul Reddam’s star fattened his career bankroll with his first-place prize money from the Florida Derby’s $1 million purse plus a $1 million bonus that he earned as a graduate of Florida’s Fasig-Tipton’s 2-year-old in training sale who won the race.

It was a big day for Nyquist and his connections, with hope for an even better afternoon in about 30 days at Churchill Downs.

The Florida Derby runaway made Nyquist a strong favorite in last weekend’s final three-day pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. He was a 3-1 when betting closed on Sunday and the strongest favorite in a final KDRF pool since pool 4 of 2011, when his sire Uncle Mo was bet down to the same closing price.

Nyquist flew to Keeneland last Sunday to continue his preparations for the Derby, a race in which he figures to be a clear favorite if all goes well over the next month. But the unbeaten colt faces some important questions, all of which will be asked during his run through the 1,234.5 feet of the Churchill Downs homestretch on the first Saturday in May.

As impressive as his Florida triumph was, the effort fell shy of making him a cinch on Derby Day. He surely dazzled in Florida but also benefited from a race that fell apart.

Fans of the champion will contend that he proved he was superior to East Coast hero Mohaymen, but the two horses didn’t see enough of each other in the Florida Derby to prove conclusively that the West Coast hero is the best.

Mohaymen was wide throughout the race and never good enough at any point to look Nyquist in the eye. As soon as he got to Nyquist’s hip, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s favorite ran out of gas and started going backward.

The race was over, leaving Nyquist to beat runner-up Majesto and third-place Fellowship, a pair of long shots nowhere near the top of anyone’s roster of Kentucky Derby contenders.

Know this: Nyquist was impressive in the Florida Derby and, at this point, is a deserving Kentucky Derby favorite. He was also a deserving choice in the final Derby Futures pool, although 3-1 was an unattractive price. It’s hard to imagine Nyquist would go off at odds much lower than 3-1 if the Derby was run today.

Despite his poor effort, it’s a bit early to give up on Mohaymen.

The next few weeks could prove that McLaughlin’s colt is simply not good enough. We could discover that Mohaymen is perhaps not as talented as his admirers believed (he had been atop my Derby Top 10 since November), but it’s also possible that he was compromised by either his wide Florida Derby journey or the racetrack surface on a showery day – or both. And, then again, he could have simply thrown in a clunker in the Florida Derby.

My best guess is that the second and third issues are likely explanations, while the first option remains very possible. McLaughlin plans to continue on the road to the Kentucky Derby with Mohaymen, so more information will be available around 6:45 p.m. (EDT) on Derby Day.

Meanwhile, the look of the prospective 2016 Kentucky Derby field could change considerably this weekend with the results of a trio of traditional Grade I “Road to the Kentucky Derby” preps in Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and California’s Santa Anita Derby.

Nyquist arrived at Keeneland Sunday to continue his training for the Run for the Roses.

Derby horses already on the grounds at Churchill Downs include Japan’s Lani, winner of the UAE Derby (Group 2) at Dubai’s Meydan Race Course; Louisiana Derby (GII) winner Gun Runner; and the Derby duo owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready.

In my personal Derby rankings, Nyquist moved up to second, but the Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit has settled into my top spot. He has impressed throughout the winter, has a good race over the Churchill Downs surface and looks capable of handling the Derby’s 1 ¼-miles.

Mor Spirit runs in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby for trainer Bob Baffert. You can take a further glimpse of my Derby Top 10 and those of other analysts at kentuckyderby.com. VT