03/31/2016 1:36PM

Florida Derby an early showdown of division's best

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – It will be East vs. West, No. 1 vs. No. 2, a clash of the unbeatens when 3-year-old division leaders Nyquist and Mohaymen square off in one of the most anticipated Kentucky Derby preps in recent memory, Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

The Grade 1 Florida Derby, which offers 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, will be the last of 14 races on Saturday’s program, which includes six other graded stakes. Post time for the first race is 1 p.m. Eastern.

Ten 3-year-olds will contest the Florida Derby, but for all intents and purposes, it is strictly a two-horse race, with Mohaymen likely to go postward the slight favorite due to the home-court advantage he holds over Nyquist, who is based in Southern California with trainer Doug O’Neill. Nyquist is eligible for a $1 million bonus should he win the Florida Derby as a graduate of the 2015 Fasig-Tipton March sale, which was held at Gulfstream Park.

 

Mohaymen is unbeaten in five starts, four of them coming in Grade 2 races, including the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, which he won with relative ease here this winter. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Shadwell Stable, Mohaymen is already proven at the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Florida Derby, having won the Remsen Stakes in his 2-year-old finale last fall at Aqueduct.

“It’s an important race to us because it’s a Grade 1 and really means a lot to him as a stallion prospect, although you hate to have the toughest race of your life right before the toughest race of their life,” said McLaughlin. “But if he has a hard race, he’s got five weeks to recover, which is part of the reason we like this race.”

McLaughlin said he has all the respect in the world for Nyquist, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile despite being very wide on the first turn.

“Winning the Breeders’ Cup the way he did, I thought it was impossible for him to do that from where he was going into the first turn,” said McLaughlin. “But I’m extremely confident in my horse. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. He’s different than anything I’ve ever had at this stage.”

Nyquist is perfect in six starts, including his half-length decision over arch rival Swipe in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Owned by Reddam Racing, Nyquist has had just one start at 3, the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 15, which he won by 1 1/2 lengths over Exaggerator.

O’Neill acknowledged that Nyquist might be at a bit of a disadvantage while facing Mohaymen on his own turf.

“Any time you have to get on a van and a plane and another van, it’s definitely a disadvantage,” said O’Neill. “But he’s done it before. We’ve had this race on our original calendar since the Breeders’ Cup and feel blessed everything’s gone as planned to this point, although when we made up that schedule, we never thought a Mohaymen would jump up. But we love the fact this race is five weeks out from the Derby and the fact we can come back east with him now and then go straight to Kentucky from here. Those are the primary reasons we’re here, not because of the bonus.”

McLaughlin and O’Neill agree that having the top two 3-year-olds in the world meeting five weeks before the Kentucky Derby is a positive for the sport.

“All eyes and ears around the world will be focused on this race Saturday, which can only be a plus for our sport,” said McLaughlin.

“I think having a matchup like this is so cool,” O’Neill said. “We’re getting a lot of publicity out of it, which is great for our industry. The race is going to draw a big crowd, a huge audience, and perhaps will generate some new fans as a result.”

Those looking for alternatives to the two favorites – or just looking to fill out trifecta and superfecta tickets – likely will settle on either Fellowship, who finished third behind Mohaymen in both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, or the improving Majesto, an impressive maiden winner in his last start.

Key Contenders

Mohaymen, by Tapit

Last 3 Beyers: 95-95-95

◗ He will break from post 9, which McLaughlin sees as a bit of an advantage.

“Granted, it’s a short run into the first turn, but if he breaks well, he’ll be able to see what’s going on inside of him, where Nyquist is at all times, which is important since we are treating this as strictly a two-horse race.”

Nyquist, by Uncle Mo

Last 3 Beyers: 101-89-79

◗ When asked if he thinks the race will turn into a cat-and-mouse game between the jockeys aboard Nyquist (Mario Gutierrez) and Mohaymen (Junior Alvarado), O’Neill said: “He’s in post 9, and we’re in 4, so that’s a lot of looking around for our rider to do. I think Mario will just focus on Nyquist, try to get him in a good spot, and ask him when it’s time. Somewhere he’ll see the big gray coming, and hopefully he’ll be able to stay ahead of him.”