04/02/2016 7:52PM

Nyquist solidifies status as Kentucky Derby favorite by winning Florida Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Nyquist remains undefeated with a 3 1/4-length victory under Mario Gutierrez in the $1 million Florida Derby.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Although he came to south Florida undefeated and the reigning juvenile champion, Nyquist may not have received the respect he truly deserved entering Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. But 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist erased any doubts he’s the undisputed leader of the 3-year-old division and the undeniable favorite for the Kentucky Derby with a convincing 3 1/4-length victory over Majesto in the $1 million Florida Derby.

The previously unbeaten Mohaymen came up empty down the stretch, finishing fourth as the 4-5 favorite. 

By winning the Florida Derby, Nyquist earned his owner Reddam Racing LLC not only the $589,000 first-place check but also a $1 million bonus as a graduate of the 2015 Fasig-Tipton March sale held at Gulfstream Park. Reddam Racing purchased Nyquist, a son of Uncle Mo, as a 2-year-old for $400,000.    

Trainer Doug O’Neill said before the race that he was going to tell jockey Mario Gutierrez to ride Nyquist away from the gate like he was the only speed in the race, and his rider followed those orders perfectly. Nyquist broke on top and led the way into the clubhouse turn while kept slightly removed from the rail. Sawyers Mickey, one of four horses in the field who went off at odds of 100-1 or higher, prompted the pace from the inside with Nyquist setting a reasonable pace of 23.60, and 47.09 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and half-mile over a racetrack that had been soaked by a couple of downpours earlier in the day and which was officially deemed “good” for the race.

Nyquist shook free of Sawyers Mickey after six furlongs in 1:11.39, but was quickly joined by Mohaymen at that point. Nyquist floated the favorite well wide leaving the final turn, disposed of the challenge approaching the furlong marker and was never threatened thereafter despite ducking out briefly and then switching back to his left lead in the vicinity of the sixteenth pole.

Majesto saved ground and proved no match for the winner while finishing a length in front of Fellowship to be second.  Fellowship, who had previously finished third behind Mohaymen in both the Grade 2 Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth stakes, loomed boldly after angling wide into the stretch, but could not sustain his bid.

Mohaymen broke a step slow and then was bumped a couple of times by Takeittotheedge while forced wide into the first turn. He raced within easy striking distance of the winner while reserved out in the four-path down the backstretch before making a quick move to get within a half-length of Nyquist approaching the quarter pole. But Mohaymen was already being hard ridden at that point and he was unable to stay with the winner after being fanned wide and upon settling into the stretch.

Nyquist completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.11 and paid $4.40. He earned another 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for the victory while Majesto picked up 40 points for finishing second, which should assure him a spot in the field if his connections desire. Fellowship picked up 20 more points for third, and also likely has enough to get into the Kentucky Derby field. 

“I thought Mario rode a brilliant race,” said O’Neill in the winner’s circle. “He showed the way out of there and kept his position. Mario won the first turn which won the race.”

O’Neill also credited his entire staff in Southern California for getting Nyquist up to the race in winning order.

“The whole trip, other than being delayed a day, everything went right,” said O’Neill. “He traveled well, looked well and it’s a credit to the whole team how he came over, how he looked and how he ran.” 

O’Neill said he also didn’t mind the rain or the wet track on Saturday.

“When it rained, we were happy,” said O’Neill. “He’s never trained on a wet track, but he seems like he can run on just about anything. Jonny Garcia, his regular exercise rider, said the one day he galloped here the track was much tighter than Santa Anita so he felt like he was really ready to run on a tight track after training on a Santa Anita track that has a little more cushion. But this was only his second time out as a 3-year-old and we’d be lying if he said we were completely optimistic going into the race. He exceeded our expectations for sure.”

Nyquist will depart Sunday morning for Keeneland, where he’ll spend most of the next five weeks preparing for the Kentucky Derby.

“We drew up a plan thinking two preps before the Derby would leave him with some fresh legs, that we’d have a fresh horse going into the Derby, and right now we feel extremely happy,” said O’Neill. “He has the mindset of a champion. Now it’s up to the whole crew and the racing gods to keep him injury free. 

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was visibly disappointed immediately after the race.

“Obviously it was not what we were looking for,” said McLaughlin. “The track was wet, he got hung out wide, but we wanted to keep him out in the clear. So congratulations to the winner. He ran big. He was very impressive.”

Mohaymen’s regular rider, Junior Alvarado, said he grew concerned when his horse wasn’t taking him like he had in his previous races.

“He broke out of there.  I asked him a little bit. He helped me right away to put me there,” Alvarado said. “But even before the three-quarter pole, he’s not on the bridle; he’s not where I wanted to be, pulling me. As soon as I got to the five-eighths pole, it went through my mind ‘he’s not pulling me.’ I was a little worried. I still tried to have faith in him and keep going without thinking about it. It happens. He wasn’t his best today.”

- additional reporting by David Grening