Kentucky Derby Report (4/6): Nyquist romps, Mohaymen fizzles in Florida Derby
Nyquist seized the mantle of Kentucky Derby favorite in Saturday’s Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park, posting a commanding 3 ¼-length decision. Now 7-for-7, the Doug O’Neill-trained colt takes his track with him, winning at four different ovals so far, and Churchill Downs is the next destination.
The champion 2-year-old turned a much-anticipated showdown between unbeaten and top-ranked contenders into a one-horse affair, with Mohaymen weakening through the stretch to finish a well-beaten fourth as the 4-5 favorite. A wet track and wide trip may have been compromising factors, but Mohaymen’s Kentucky Derby stock took a major hit.
Turfway Park’s Polytrack guaranteed a turf horse a spot in the Kentucky Derby field, with Oscar Nominated recording a 23-1 upset in Saturday’s Spiral (G3). The former claimer had raced exclusively over turf in six previous starts and isn’t nominated to the Triple Crown, but owner Ken Ramsey promised he’ll be supplemented for a $200,000 fee.
O’Neill sent Nyquist from California for a $1 million Florida Derby bonus offered to Fasig-Tipton Florida March sales graduates and the son of leading freshman sire Uncle Mo will bring earnings of $3,322,600 into the Kentucky Derby. The 1 1/8-mile race marked his first start on a wet track and Nyquist blew away the competition.
Mario Gutierrez sent Nyquist to the front at the break and kept his mount a few paths off the rail on a short lead through the opening stages, recording solid opening fractions in :23.60, :47.09 and 1:11.39.
After being chased by a pair of massive longshots, Nyquist faced a brief challenge from Mohaymen on the far turn. While engaging his rival to the outside, Nyquist traveled about six paths off the rail into the stretch. Mohaymen nearly drew even before beginning to retreat as they turned for home.
Nyquist spurted clear in upper stretch, switching to the wrong lead as he suddenly found himself all alone. And then he drifted out in midstretch, switching back to the correct lead. When Gutierrez straightened him out, Nyquist went back to the wrong lead as he cruised to the wire.
Drifting and alternating leads are not favorable qualities, but Nyquist was drawing away at the same time. And I liked seeing him extend his advantage from the stretch call to the wire; he lost ground at this critical stage in both two-turn starts last year, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and FrontRunner (G1).
Complacency may have had something to do with his antics. Nyquist embodies the linchpin of Kentucky’s Men Basketball Coach John Calipari’s coaching philosophy, the desire to “fight.” Like a warrior, Nyquist seeks to intimidate rivals and has appeared lackadaisical when not in battle. We haven’t seen any horses pass Nyquist, an admirable trait entering the Kentucky Derby.
With Mohaymen spitting the bit early, Nyquist didn’t beat much in the latter stages. Runner-up Majesto was exiting a maiden win in his fifth career start and third-placer Fellowship was already exposed as a slower member of his division. Nyquist’s 120.0 BRIS Class rating for the Florida Derby (which takes into account the horses he’s beating) could easily be the lowest figure of any final major prep race winner.
His 97 BRIS Speed rating came back six points lower than the 103 registered in his 2016 bow, the 7-furlong San Vicente (G2) at Santa Anita, and Nyquist earned better Speed ratings in sprints than routes as a 2-year-old. However, one must concede the difficulty in determining the correct variant as Gulfstream had a near 2 ½-hour gap between dirt races, with a trio of turf stakes and another round of showers in the interim, and the track likely changed before the Florida Derby, the finale on a 14-race card.
From my perspective, a high probability exists for the 2016 Kentucky Derby winner to be based in California. This grouping includes Nyquist, Danzing Candy, Mor Spirit and Cupid.
Nyquist served notice with the convincing victory, but the difference between 1 1/8 and 1 ¼ miles is significant for many young 3-year-olds. Uncle Mo, who is out of an Arch mare, rates as a much better candidate to sire a classic winner than sire Indian Charlie, but Nyquist’s immediate female family is geared more toward speed than stamina.
And Nyquist will be using only a single two-turn race in preparation for 10 furlongs. I mistakenly criticized Smarty Jones’s potential for 1 ¼ miles, and could be making the same error with Nyquist, but trainer John Servis did everything he could to build stamina in his speedy colt, giving Smarty Jones four two-turn prep races prior to the 2004 Kentucky Derby.
Nyquist has more 2-year-old foundation but didn’t have to work hard in the Florida Derby stretch; circumstances promise to be much different at Churchill. His competition from the FrontRunner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has not gone forward this season and Nyquist will be trying to become only the second Juvenile victor in 32 years to win the Kentucky Derby (joining 2007 winner Street Sense).
It would be foolish to dismiss his chances outright – Nyquist possesses plenty of grit and remains a threat to prevail because he’s the most talented -- but I’m not keen at the prospect of a short price in the Kentucky Derby.
The bubble burst for Mohaymen, who reeled off four straight dominant stakes wins after capturing his career debut. This could have simply been an off day for the gray Tapit colt and Mohaymen wouldn’t be the first horse to reverse a clunker under the Twin Spires -- Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Thunder Gulch failed to show when finishing fourth in the 1995 Blue Grass but rebounded at 24-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby. But you never want to see a bad performance in the final prep.
Mohaymen hasn’t been flattered by his vanquished rivals, with two-time runner-up Flexibility and Holy Bull second Greenpointcrusader producing unplaced finishes at low odds in their most recent outing. And trainer Kiaran McLaughlin spoke about trying to put extra weight on Mohaymen after the Florida Derby, which is difficult to view as a positive considering the extreme environment Mohaymen will be facing in a projected 20-horse field.
But Mohaymen has displayed an outstanding finishing kick in previous starts and I won’t be shocked to see him turn things around in the Kentucky Derby.
His defeat means Shadwell won’t have the Kentucky Derby favorite and the stable’s Shagaf could actually head postward at lower odds if he wins Saturday’s Wood Memorial (G1).
The Spiral was up for grabs the entire way, with the top five finishers separated by about a length on the wire, and Surgical Strike wound up a tough-luck third after blowing the turn for home. But I can’t envision any Spiral participants being a factor in the Triple Crown.
Oscar Nominated brought improving form into the race. Second in the Keith Gee Memorial two starts previously, the Kitten’s Joy colt was exiting a 1 ½-length decision in the about 7 ½-furlong Black Gold on the Fair Grounds’ turf. However, Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker didn’t give him a chance to be Kentucky Derby caliber before the nomination deadline in late March.
He registered a lackluster 91 BRIS Speed rating in the Spiral and Oscar Nominated will be making his first dirt start in the Kentucky Derby; he appears destined to return to turf later this season if he remains healthy.
An exciting weekend is up ahead with three final preps awarding points on a 100-40-20-10 scale.
The Santa Anita Derby offers the most star appeal, with Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit the headliners in a 10-horse field, and Exaggerator will attempt to regain lost luster after weakening in the stretch of the San Felipe (G2).
Cliff Sise Jr. has never had a Kentucky Derby starter, but he may have the goods to challenge in Danzing Candy and seven first-time trainers have captured the Run for the Roses since 2000.
The Wood Memorial will feature an eight-horse field and it’s interesting to note that John Velazquez gave up a couple of high-profile mounts at Keeneland -- Zulu in the Blue Grass (G1) and Rachel’s Valentina in the Ashland (G1) -- to ride Outwork at Aqueduct. The Hall of Fame jockey also departed Destin, who Velazquez guided to a victory in the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa, to ride Outwork to a runner-up finish behind his stablemate in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3).
Outwork, an Uncle Mo colt who hails from an Empire Maker mare, figures to improve upon his two-turn debut last time and could be the Wood third choice behind Gotham (G3) winner Shagaf and well-regarded allowance scorer Matt King Coal. I’ll be looking for a big effort.
The Blue Grass will feature a full field of 14 and the top three choices on the morning line (and only horses listed at less than 10-1) – Zulu, Brody’s Cause and Donegal Moon – are all vulnerable in my estimation.
Cherry Wine holds some appeal off a troubled fourth in the Rebel (Corey Lanerie has been named to ride after also serving as the regular rider aboard Brody’s Cause) and I give American Dubai (third in the Southwest two back) and Star Hill (third in Tampa Bay Derby) a chance to surprise at long odds.
1) Cupid – Jumped straight from a maiden victory to the Rebel where he missed the break, raced greenly on a clear lead in upper stretch & dug in determinedly when challenged by a fast-closing rival, winning going away under the wire; expect him to keep advancing & versatile Tapit colt is in the right hands with Bob Baffert
2) Danzing Candy – Confirmed front-runner impressed when capturing his stakes debut, the San Felipe, & could be the Kentucky Derby second choice if he keeps improving with a Santa Anita Derby victory
3) Mor Spirit – Closed belatedly for second in 1 1/16-mile San Felipe & doesn’t have to win Santa Anita Derby; Baffert wants him to finish strong before showing up with his best at Churchill Downs
4) Gun Runner – Well-bred colt showed the progress needed after a narrow tally in the Risen Star, winning the Louisiana Derby with complete authority, and eligible to play a major role with another forward move on Derby Day
5) Nyquist – Will head to the Kentucky Derby with momentum after proving much the best in Florida Derby; detractors could be overestimating the competition but stretch out to 1 ¼ miles remains a concern in this corner
6) Mohaymen – Better than he showed in Florida Derby & puzzling performance could prove to be an aberration at Churchill, but worried he may have plateaued after dominating lesser rivals in previous starts
7) Shagaf – Hasn’t been overly impressive but has done everything right so far; Wood Memorial will give us a better read upon his Kentucky Derby chances
8) Whitmore – Rebel and Southwest runner-up remains an intriguing prospect for Ron Moquett; watching to see if he keeps progressing in Arkansas Derby
9) Suddenbreakingnews – Southwest winner packs a late punch but compromised by troubled trip in Rebel; can confirm his status as a possible exotics player with a good showing in Arkansas Derby
10) Outwork – Believe he has a big upside but lightly-raced colt still has much to prove; Wood Memorial offers the opportunity for a breakthrough
Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:
March 22: Cupid dazzles in stakes debut
March 9: Shagaf grinds out Gotham
February 24: Bullish on Gun Runner
February 17: Nyquist returns a stylish winner
February 10: Baffert remains in the spotlight with Mor Spirit
February 3: Mohaymen justifies star billing
January 20: Stakes-experience proves valuable
January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation