When it comes to East vs. West in horse racing, the top 3-year-olds traditionally stick to their own coasts until May rolls around and they meet up for the first time in the Kentucky Derby.
Not so this year.
Gulfstream Park is set to host a historically rare battle of the two leading Derby candidates in Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby when the best of the West, Nyquist, invades South Florida to take on the beast of the East, Mohaymen.
Both horses are unbeaten and are ranked 1-2 in most Kentucky Derby polls.
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“Having the top two Triple Crown contenders racing against each other before May is unheard of,” said P.J. Campo, Gulfstream’s vice president of racing. “It really is incredible.”
That it is.
According to the Gulfstream research staff, the last time a nationally prominent 3-year-old from the West Coast came east to race in the Florida Derby was 1986 when Snow Chief ventured here and won as the favorite.
The first horse to make the coast-to-coast trip was Correlation, who won the 1954 Florida Derby.
Other than that, West-to-East shippers for the Florida Derby have been few and far between.
And nobody can remember there ever being a heavyweight showdown like that which is shaping up for the 65th running of the race.
“This not only is an historical Florida Derby, but a historical prep race for the Triple Crown,” Campo said.
Nyquist was the 2-year-old champion of 2015, capping his unblemished season with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Mohaymen has been tearing it up this winter in South Florida, winning both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth Stakes in convincing manner at Gulfstream.
That gives him a home-track advantage while raising the following question: As talented as he is, why are Nyquist’s connections skipping the Santa Anita Derby — the West Coast’s top prep race for 3-year-olds — in favor of the Florida Derby?
Answer: As a graduate of the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old sales, Nyquist stands to receive a $1 million bonus in addition to the $600,000 purse he would receive for winning the Florida Derby.
Mohaymen will be racing for purse money only.
All other contenders, it would appear on paper, are racing for leftovers.
“I know that the two big horses are very, very, very strong,” said Gustavo Delgado, who intends to send out Majesto in the Florida Derby. “To finish third would be very good for me.”
Said trainer Peter Walder, who is expected to saddle a pair of horses in Ifyousnoozeyoulose and Sawyers Mickey: “The fact is, third places give you $100,000.”
Then again, as Delgado added: “It looks like only six or seven horses will be in the race. Racing is racing and anything can happen.”