Should nothing change in the next 30 days—which in horse racing time is admittedly an eternity—we will be witness to an event as rare as Donald Trump being subtle. On April 2 the two titans of the 3-year-old division, Mohaymen and Nyquist, have a date to meet in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park. In an age when top sophomores race once every other full moon and their connections seek to keep them as far afield from stiff competition as possible, this head-on clash pre-Run for the Roses is a gift to racing fans, a welcome throwback to times when sportsmen, not statistics, ruled the roost.
In the eastern corner we have Mohaymen, a robust, striking gray/roan son of two-time leading sire Tapit who is undefeated in five starts, including two this year where he has yet to break a sweat in winning the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes and Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes (both gr. II). The Shadwell Stable flag-bearer has won an additional pair of grade II stakes at Aqueduct following his maiden breaker at Belmont Park.
In the western corner is your champion 2-year-old male of 2015, Nyquist, unbeaten in six starts, including a hard-fought victory in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Keeneland. The son of top young sire Uncle Mo has also emerged victorious in grade I and grade II races at Santa Anita Park and Del Mar. Reddam Racing and trainer Doug O’Neill will be seeking to repeat their Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) win by I’ll Have Another in 2012.
You have to go back 19 years to find top-rated 3-year-olds like these tussling before getting to the Twin Spires. Then, Silver Charm and Free House engaged in a memorable series, running 1-2 in three Derby preps before Silver Charm won at Churchill Downs and Free House checked in third. They continued on to run 1-2 in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and 2-3 in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and ran 1-2 again in the Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. II) the following year and 1-3 in 1999 when Free House won the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I).
Affirmed and Alydar faced each other five times at 2 and ran 1-2 in all of them, Affirmed winning three. They didn’t meet at 3 before the Derby. Empire Maker and Funny Cide squared off in the 2003 Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I), although nobody paid much attention to Funny Cide until he defeated Empire Maker under the Twin Spires. Indian Charlie got the best of Real Quiet in the 1998 Santa Anita Derby before Real Quiet turned the tables in the Derby.
And that’s about it—until now.
Paul Reddam watched Mohaymen’s Fountain of Youth score from Santa Anita, but had no second thoughts about the plan he’d hatched with O’Neill months before.
“It gave us no pause because we’re very hard-headed,” Nyquist’s owner said. “We sat down at the beginning of the year and tried to figure out what would get us to the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby in the best shape possible, and we came up with the (Feb. 15) San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) and the Florida Derby. I don’t see why we’d change that plan. Mohaymen is a great horse and we’re more excited about the race than we are nervous, although that could change by race day.
“We’re going on the road and we’ll definitely be the underdog, but I’ll be surprised if it isn’t a great race.”
Having purchased Nyquist at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale last year, Reddam stands to collect a $1 million bonus should his charge win the Florida Derby, which he maintains is not his main motivation.
“Look, if we win the money, we’re not giving it back,” he said. “But we think this is the best way to prep our horse for the Derby. If we graded our horse on how we thought he was doing, we’d give him an 11 on a scale of 1-10. This is going to be fun.”
And hopefully the beginning of a memorable series.