The Florida Derby is a turning point in my mind. When this race comes along then we are finally able to believe that the Kentucky Derby is just around the corner. It's a sign of spring - just as sure as birds flying north or trees blooming. That's because the race has, in recent years at least, been the first of the big preps on the calendar. It has also been a factory for producing Triple Crown race winners. The race started in 1952, and since then 57 different horses have gone from this race to a victory in at least one Triple Crown race. Remarkable. Most recently, Orb took both this race and the Kentucky Derby in 2013.
This year's edition of the Florida Derby is particularly compelling. The two horses viewed as the top three year olds in training by many - two year old champion Nyquist, and Mohaymen - are in a collision course in this one. Both are undefeated, and both are well bred and wildly talented. There are eight other horses lining up against them in this race - including three last-minute entries - but make no mistake, this race is only about two horses.
It is rare to see a showdown of this magnitude before Kentucky, so this is a real treat. The top two horses are at even money and 6/5 on the morning line, and the third choice in the field is way back at 15/1. It's totally justified, then, to mostly ignore the rest of the field and look at only the top two. In fact, there are only two horses that are even sort of interesting among the long shots. Fellowship (15/1) has multiple wins and was third behind Mohaymen the last two times out. Some talent, but probably not good enough. Takeittotheedge (20/1) is ridiculously raw, having run just once. That was on March 5, though, and it was a truly dominating win. Probably outclassed, but interesting. When the second most interesting long shot is a second-time starter then you know the field doesn't deserve much attention.
Now that we are done with that, the two that actually matter:
Mohaymen, Junior Alvarado, 1/1: After breaking his maiden in September at Belmont Park, Mohaymen won the two biggest two year old races that Aqueduct Park offers in the fall - the Nashua and the Remsen. I'm naturally skeptical of those races - and all things Aqueduct, really - but those concerns were soundly put aside when he dominated the two key Gulfstream Park prep races for this race - the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth. Not only has the colt not lost, but he hasn't taken a single misstep along the way. What is so impressive about the horse, though, is that he doesn't yet look like he has even had to tap into any of his reserves. He has looked almost bored winning, which means that there is a whole lot still left to give when he is asked to give it. This is one impressive horse. His last four efforts have been over a mile, and he has won at the same 1 ⅛-mile distance he will run here, so we know the distance of this race will be fine, and we obviously knows he likes the track. He comes in ready.
Mohaymen is a son of Tapit, the hottest sire in the country the last couple of years. The breeding suits the challenge. His trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, won the Belmont in 2006 with Jazil and has won almost every other race that matters, too - including the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup. He's an asset. Jockey Junior Alvarado is consistently solid and can get the job done. I'm looking for a reason to knock this horse, but I really can't find one. I hate even money or worse bets on principle, but it is justified here. This is unquestionably the horse to beat in my eyes, and it doesn't feel very close.
Nyquist, Mario Gutierrez, 6/5: I will acknowledge a bias up front. This horse comes from the same connections - owner, trainer and jockey - that brought up I'll Have Another - the most shameful chapter in recent Triple Crown history. They are everything that is wrong with this sport, and I would be hard pressed to support them. That being said, I'm confident that that bias isn't the main reason - or even close - that I wouldn't back this horse. So, what are the reasons? First, I don't like him in this spot. He is based in Southern California, won his only race of the year there, and has worked well there. It would only make sense, it seems, to keep him there for the Santa Anita Derby. After all, we already know he can handle travel - he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. So, why is he disrupting his preparation by making this trip? Cash. Plain and simple. He was bought at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale, and the sales company is offering a million dollar bonus for any graduate of their sale that wins this race. Greed has made this happen. I'm particularly skeptical of this set of connections making sub-perfect race selections - last weekend they sent Frank Conversation to Dubai instead of keeping him stateside in an attempt to steal Derby points in the U.A.E. Derby and he finished dead last.
That's not the biggest issue, though. The biggest issue is that I don't trust him to get the distance - and I really don't trust him to get the Derby distance. He has only run once since the Breeders' Cup on Halloween day, and that was over just seven furlongs. The breeding is nice but not necessarily for distance. I have concerns. And given that I have none about Mohaymen, that's a problem.
I need to be clear - this horse is undefeated, he has beaten some nice fields, and he finds ways to win. Trainer Doug O'Neill is easy to hate in part because he wins a lot. I'm quite down on this horse, but I still respect him. I just respect the favorite a whole lot more.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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