A Florida Derby that was billed as a two-horse race — an intriguing showdown of undefeated colts from the East and West Coasts — belonged in the end to just one.
The invader from California.
Nyquist stunned Mohaymen on his home track, romping to a convincing victory and establishing himself as the clear favorite for the Kentucky Derby in five weeks.
Just how impressive was Nyquist’s 3 1/4-length triumph Saturday?
“It looked like he was showboating a little [in the stretch],” winning trainer Doug O’Neill said. “He started to play around.”
Nyquist and jockey Mario Gutierrez left little doubt as to which equine member in the current crop of 3-year-olds ranks as the best in the country, putting away Mohaymen at the top of the stretch and fending off the rest of the field in the 1 1/8-mile stakes.
“I saw the gray horse coming to my side” Gutierrez said of Mohaymen. “And I am running the race and feeling confident, and I knew if he was going to pass me, he was going to have to pass me right away.”
In another words, Gutierrez still had a ton of horse underneath him. And while Mohaymen was done running, Nyquist was not.
“Usually he’s dragging me,” said Mohaymen’s jockey, Junior Alvarado, his silks streaked in mud. “And this time I was the one asking him.”
Mohaymen didn’t have anything left to give, finishing a tiring fourth, more than eight lengths behind the winner.
Not only did the win put Nyquist on the top of the pedestal heading into the Kentucky Derby, but also he rewarded his connections with a nice bounty. Nyquist earned $1.6 million for Saturday’s romp — the $600,000 purse that went to the winner of the Florida Derby and a $1 million bonus he received as Fasig-Tipton sales grad.
Call it a successful gamble.
Horses from the West Coast rarely venture to the East in the major preps leading up to the Kentucky Derby. The last to do so was Snow Chief — exactly 20 years ago.
But with that $1 million bonus serving as the enticement, O’Neill talked it over with owner Paul Reddam and, after some initial reservations when they saw how well Mohaymen was performing in South Florida, made plans one month ago to give it a shot.
“I had a little reservation maybe a month or so ago because Mohaymen, in his own backyard, did we really want to do something like that?” O’Neill said. “But we all very quickly got on the same page.”
Mohaymen had peeled off big wins in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth Stakes, earning the No. 1 ranking in the Daily Racing Form’s Kentucky Derby poll of top contenders.
Nyquist, coming off an undefeated juvenile season in which he was crowned the nation’s champion 2-year-old, had raced just once this year, taking the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita in California.
Taking those factors into consideration, bettors Saturday sent Mohaymen off as the 4-5 favorite, with Nyquist close behind at 6-5. The rest of the 10-horse field was largely dismissed — and for good reason. While Mohaymen and Nyquist had combined for 11 wins in their careers, their eight challengers — four of them sent off at odds of 103-1 or greater — totaled only eight.
Toss in the fact that rain earlier in the day had created sauna-like conditions, a climate to which Mohaymen had become accustomed to stabling in South Florida this winter, and the odds seemed to favor the gray colt even more.
But when the horses arrived in the saddling paddock before the race, it was Mohaymen who was noticeably wet from sweat while Nyquist remained calm and dry.
And when the starting gate opened, Nyquist shot straight to the lead.
Mohaymen tracked closely in fourth, as his customary racing style. But when he rounded the final turn to engage Nyquist, it became obvious which horse had more to give.
Gutierrez looked over his right shoulder to eyeball Mohaymen while Alvarez began scrubbing his horse in a vain attempt to keep up.
When the two horses turned into the final straight, it was game over.
Nyquist pulled away as Mohaymen fell back, passed by both Majesto and third-place finisher Fellowship.
“We’ll regroup,” Mohaymen’s trainer Kirian McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin didn’t say whether Mohaymen, following Saturday’s defeat, would continue on to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby.
Nyquist is definitely going.
He was scheduled to hop on a horse van at 9 a.m. Sunday for the trip north. Next stop: Louisville.