Mohaymen, Nyquist showdown recalls other famous pre-Derby meetings
In an era when most horsemen rigorously avoid such confrontations before all the glory is on the line at Churchill Downs (in this case, a $1 million bonus for Nyquist if he should win has helped bring this event about), it should be a moment for racing fans of all stripes to savor.
What makes this match-up special is that both colts enter Gulfstream Park's marquee race undefeated. Barring a dead heat or an upset of both, neither of which either camp would necessarily like to see five weeks before the big one, only one will head to Louisville with their perfect record intact.
Browsing the modern history books, I don't think we have seen a race like this which checks all the boxes: a battle between the top two Derby favorites, including the juvenile champion, in a geographical showdown of unbeatens. Hopefully, I haven't completely overlooked any major confrontation of the post-war era when thinking the following examples, though not quite analogous, come close.
1994 Fountain of Youth (G2): Eventual Kentucky Derby favorite and Horse of the Year Holy Bull met defeat for the first time here as the 13-10 favorite when he flipped his palate and finished last, 24 1/4 lengths behind Dehere. The juvenile champion was rebounding from a surprise season-opening allowance loss here to edge eventual Derby winner Go for Gin by three parts of a length in what turned out to be his final start.
1988 Lexington (G2): Only in retrospect can we view this race as a pre-Derby battle between the two best colts in the crop. When Louisiana Derby (G3) winner Risen Star edged juvenile champion and 2-5 favorite Forty Niner by a head, the latter's bandwagon got a little lighter and favoritism on Derby Day went to the undefeated Wood Memorial (G1) winner Private Terms, with Santa Anita Derby (G1) heroine Winning Colors a close second choice.
1985 Flamingo (G1): The once-beaten Proud Truth emerged as the 6-5 favorite for the old Hialeah fixture after back-to-back wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby (G1). Making his second start of the season was two-year-old champion Chief's Crown, sent away at 13-10 after capturing the seven-furlong Swale in his season debut. Chief's Crown won wire-to-wire on the track, and in a court battle to overturn the stewards' decision to disqualify him for interference, cementing his claim to Derby favoritism.
1973 Wood Memorial (G1): Perhaps the closest to an East vs. West battle involved the legendary Secretariat, who met Santa Anita Derby winner Sham for the first time at Aqueduct two weeks before the Run for the Roses. As most of Big Red's followers know, both were upset by Secretariat's stablemate Angle Light, with Sham grabbing place honors in front of the juvenile Horse of the Year, who was suffering from a mouth abscess. You know the rest of the story.
1957: Perhaps the best pre-Kentucky Derby rivalry ever involved Bold Ruler and Gen. Duke, who met four times in Florida during the winter of 1957. It was these two, rather than eventual Derby winner Iron Liege and the Hall of Fame duo of Gallant Man and Round Table, who emerged a bit later, that grabbed nearly all of the headlines during the prep season.
Bold Ruler struck first winning the seven-furlong Bahamas at Hialeah by 4 1/2 lengths while giving Gen. Duke 12 pounds, but a similar weight spread proved too much in the nine-furlong Everglades when Calumet Farm's color bearer prevailed by a neck. In the Flamingo Bold Ruler got revenge by a neck at equal weights, but the Florida Derby proved a decisive win for Gen. Duke, who won by 1 1/2 lengths in a still-standing stakes record of 1:46 4/5.
Gen. Duke was a late withdrawal from the Derby due to a foot injury, but stablemate Iron Liege saved the day for Calumet with a narrow win over Gallant Man. Bold Ruler, the 6-5 favorite, weakened to fourth. While Bold Ruler went on to capture Horse of the Year honors, Gen. Duke never returned to serious training and, sadly, was put down the following year after contracting wobbler syndrome.