04/03/2016 10:16AM

Watchmaker: Florida Derby leaves some questions unanswered

Barbara D. Livingston
Nyquist dominated the Florida Derby, but earned a relatively modest Beyer Speed Figure of 94.

The most anticipated matchup in a Kentucky Derby prep in years that was supposed to take place in Saturday’s Florida Derby never materialized. But don’t be angry with Nyquist. It’s not his fault that, at least on this day, he was just much, much better than Mohaymen.

There are going to be some who will say that this Florida Derby came down to trips. They will say that Nyquist, who went right to the front from the cozy four hole, had a much better trip than Mohaymen, who was caught four-wide on the first turn after breaking from post 9 in a field of 10 that was unnecessarily inflated by the presence of four horses who went off at more than 100-1, and an 82-1 shot.

(As an aside, when is the last time you saw four horses go off at more than 100-1 and another go off at over 80-1 in a Grade 1 race? No one likes to see short fields in any races, including stakes. But padding races with rank outsiders like this did not make this Florida Derby a legitimate 10-horse race. It was, in practice, a five-horse Florida Derby with five automatic throw-outs whose only possible contribution would be to get in the way.)

But while it is true that Mohaymen was indeed caught four-wide on the first turn, I will counter by saying that if he was the horse many of us thought he was, a wide trip on the first turn would not it itself have been reason enough for Mohaymen’s empty performance.

Moreover, Mohaymen’s wide trip on the first turn was mitigated by the fact that Nyquist was hounded early from the inside by Sawyers Mickey, a 124-1 maiden, and from the outside by Chovanes, a 136-1 maiden claiming winner. In other words, Nyquist was being dogged by two horses who had no business even being in a race like the Florida Derby. Thank goodness neither bumped, stepped on, or impeded Nyquist, and were only minor annoyances through the first half or so of the race.

No, this Florida Derby wasn’t about trips, because Mohaymen had his clear shot at Nyquist on the far turn, and Nyquist turned him away with ease. And Nyquist went on to score with total authority.

As for Mohaymen, whether it was the wet track or something else, there has to be a legitimate excuse for his fade to fourth. Mohaymen crushed Fellowship in the Holy Bull in January and in the Fountain of Youth in February. He beat him by six and 6 1/4 lengths in those races, and it easily could have been by more. But on Saturday, Mohaymen finished four lengths behind Fellowship. Fellowship was making his 11th career start in the Florida Derby. We pretty much know exactly what he is. When good horses like Mohaymen fall victim to such a dramatic form reversal, there is usually a real reason.

Nyquist’s Florida Derby win vaults him over Mohaymen and makes the undefeated champion 2-year-old male of 2015, who is now 7 for 7, the ante post favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Beyond that, unfortunately, what Nyquist’s Florida Derby victory means in regard to his chances in the Kentucky Derby is less clear-cut than his score Saturday. Nyquist is still a son of Uncle Mo and is still out of a Forestry mare, and as phenomenal as the Uncle Mos have been, that pedigree still does not shout 10 furlongs.

In fairness to Nyquist, the Florida Derby was the first time he raced as far as nine furlongs, and he certainly had no difficulty with the distance, at least in relation to the competition offered. However, the 94 Beyer Figure he earned for his effort, seven points less than what he was given for his win in the seven-furlong San Vicente in his 3-year-old bow, but his best two-turn Beyer to date, was not strong. Depending on how one chooses to read it, that 94 Beyer could be an indication that distance for Nyquist is indeed an issue, and he won the Florida Derby the way he did mainly because Mohaymen didn’t show up, and the others were hopelessly overmatched.

Either way, this adds an additional layer of intrigue to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby, and is likely to make him an unusually polarizing Derby favorite.

 Spiral Stakes miscast as Derby points race

Oscar Nominated won Saturday’s Spiral Stakes, and earned 50 Kentucky Derby points, which easily puts him in the starting gate for the Derby. Don’t worry about the fact that Oscar Nominated is not Triple Crown-nominated, or that it will cost a lofty $200,000 to supplement him to the Derby. If Oscar Nominated is mobile at entry time of the Derby, he’ll be in there, because he’s owned by Ken Ramsey, and that’s how Ramsey rolls.

While Oscar Nominated deserves a tip of the cap for winning the Spiral at 23-1 over 11 opponents, it is fair to wonder about the wisdom of the Spiral being essentially a win and you’re in Derby race.

The Spiral was run on a Turfway Polytrack that resembles the dirt track at Churchill Downs over which the Derby will be run on only in the regard that both are brown. Otherwise, they are completely different animals.

Yes, I know that Animal Kingdom used the Spiral as a springboard to a Derby victory. Nevertheless, making the Spiral an automatic Derby berth race is not unlike making a turf race the same thing, and I would think we’d all agree that would be ridiculous.

In fact, a turf horse is exactly what Oscar Nominated is. All six of his career starts before Saturday were on turf, and he won two of them – a maiden claimer last fall at Belmont from which he was claimed by Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker from none other than Bill Mott, and the listed Black Gold Stakes, a $50,000 event, at Fair Grounds.

The basic question here concerns the fairness of a points system that would award a Kentucky Derby start to a horse who is a total unknown on the surface over which the Derby is contested because he has never even run on it, and do so at the expense of a horse who is a Grade 1 winner on dirt, or another who is multiple Grade 1 stakes-placed on dirt.