By Tim Reynolds
AP Sports Writer
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — The Florida Derby could not have gotten a better scenario.
Undefeated horses, one from the East, one from the West, who happen to be the most highly touted members of this year’s 3-year-old class squaring off in Gulfstream Park’s signature race — a Grade 1, $1 million affair that shapes up as a dress rehearsal for the Kentucky Derby.
Mohaymen vs. Nyquist.
Their first head-to-head showdown has been awaited for weeks, and it finally comes Saturday.
“All eyes and ears will be watching,” Mohaymen trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “You don’t get this East-West, undefeated two colts, prior to the Kentucky Derby. Usually it’s the Kentucky Derby where you get it. It’s a shame that one of them is going to be defeated, but they’re both top horses and it’s great for our industry.”
Mohaymen is 5-0 in his career, the first three of those wins coming on tracks in New York and the last two over the Gulfstream surface that hosts this duel on Saturday. Nyquist is 6-0, five of those wins in California and the other coming when he shipped to Kentucky and surprised many by rallying to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year at Keeneland.
A year after American Pharoah seemed to capture the imaginations of plenty of fans on his way to ending a nearly four-decade drought between Triple Crown winners, Mohaymen and Nyquist look more than ready to assume the torch of being the sport’s newest big star.
“I think the sport is definitely getting healthier,” Nyquist trainer Doug O’Neill said. “We’re here to serve the horse, not vice versa. Some of the stats, fatalities have been way down, and I think it’s a sport that’s gradually heading back to the front page and not getting lost on the back page. … I definitely see an uptick in the quality all around the country.”
Depending on perspective, there’s either a lot or not much at stake for Mohaymen and Nyquist.
Both are almost certainly headed to the Kentucky Derby, assuming nothing goes wrong for either horse in the next five weeks. Having one — or in case of a huge upset, both — go there with one loss on the record won’t change either’s ability to win the Run for the Roses.
But this is Mohaymen’s first chance at winning a Grade 1, which would certainly help his stallion fees later in life. And Nyquist is running for a chance at $1.6 million, which would basically double his already-big earnings. The winner Saturday gets $600,000 and because he was acquired at a Fasig-Tipton sale at Gulfstream (price tag now looking like a bargain at $400,000), his connections would pocket a $1 million bonus if he wins this race.
“It’s exciting. I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to it,” Mohaymen jockey Junior Alvarado said. “I know the ability my horse has and I trust him. I know what kind of horse he is. It will be a nice battle and hopefully we end up winning the race.”
O’Neill has said for months that Nyquist would probably race only twice between the Breeders’ Cup and the Kentucky Derby, the thinking there being a fresh horse on the Triple Crown trail would be optimal.
A chance at the bonus is ancillary, O’Neill said.
“The bonus only comes into play if you win,” said O’Neill, who flew Nyquist from California to South Florida on Tuesday and will probably take him to Keeneland after the race to prep for the Kentucky Derby. “So you have to win. We’re coming because we think we can win and we’re coming because it was on our plan after the Breeders’ Cup as our target because it’s five weeks out.”
Their racing styles are different. Mohaymen has a trend of stalking the lead before making his move; Nyquist has more speed and benefits from putting pressure on his opponents with every stride.
There’s going to be another difference on Saturday: At least one of them will walk off the track defeated for the first time.
“Mohaymen has home-court advantage and he is every professional handicapper’s pick from what I’ve read,” O’Neill said. “He’s the Derby favorite to this point. We’ve got to beat him to earn our respect.”