Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Showdown In The Sunshine State

We’ve reached the most eagerly anticipated week along the Kentucky Derby trail with the heavyweight battle of Mohaymen v Nyquist getting top billing at Gulfstream Park.

On the surface, Mohaymen brings the credentials of a potential Kentucky Derby favorite to the table. Undefeated in five starts, he has taken both of the major Florida Derby preps stylishly. Proven locally in addition to owning a win over this nine furlong distance, he is being touted as the favorite in what is essentially a match race between the two heavy hitters.

Believe the narratives being publicized and you would think Nyquist is the new kid on the block, not the reigning two-year-old champion; but alas, he has been marked as the one “with something to prove” in this bout. Rest assured however, win or lose, an undefeated juvenile champion with a Breeders’ Cup win to his name doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. He has proven himself on the track already and a Florida Derby win would be another highlight to add to an already glittering resume.

With two very different individuals taking each other on in a match race of sorts -- if that is even possible in a ten horse field -- we ask the all important question: who wins?

Who Have They Beaten?
This is the category where the similarities between Mohaymen and Nyquist start...and end. They are both undefeated multiple graded stakes winners with Nyquist having had one start more (six in total) than Mohaymen. Nyquist, who debuted last June, has a trio of juvenile G1 wins to his name while Mohaymen has yet to contest a race at the highest level.

At one point, Mohaymen’s formlines appeared bombproof with Seymourdini breaking his maiden in his next start and Aqueduct rival Flexibility winning the Jerome Stakes. That form burst into flames when Flexibility was off the board in the Withers as a heavy favorite, however, and both Adventist and Sunny Ridge subsequently did that form no favors when they could only muster third and fourth in a short field Gotham Stakes, finishing behind a maiden in the process. Greenpointcrusader was nowhere to be found in the Louisiana Derby after finishing second to Mohaymen in the Holy Bull. Sure, Donegal Moon won an allowance at Parx after failing to hit the board in the Jerome and the Withers, but as always, Parx form should be taken with a grain of salt.

Perhaps in Nyquist’s favor in this category is that chief rival Swipe has yet to run in 2016 after a setback left him sidelined. Up until that point, however, Swipe served as a solid gauge of the strength of the Southern California crop. Second to Nyquist three times in the Golden State, the duo once again made up the exacta in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile which furthered the already developing belief that the best two-year-olds were in California.

Denman’s Call defeated now Rebel Stakes winner Cupid on debut before being easily handled by Nyquist and once again tamely going down to Iron Rob in the San Pedro. But how one really rates Nyquist’s form lies in his opinion of Exaggerator. Seeing as I believe Exaggerator showed in the San Felipe that he is best as a one-turn miler, I upgrade Nyquist’s form because under that set of circumstances, he beat Exaggerator -- a solid horse in his own right -- at his own game, which is never an easy task. Since I do not believe Exaggerator stayed the trip in the San Felipe, his third place finish is not viewed as disappointing in my opinion, especially considering he made an eye-catching move entering the far turn before flattening out late.
Advantage: Nyquist

Style Points
While he may have beaten better horses to date, Nyquist’s wins are far from stylish. The gritty nature of his runs leads to him being in a slugfest nearly every time he turns for home. Kudos to him for having always gotten his nose in front to this point, but it definitely has not been easy. He also has a tendency to drift when pressured. He drifted in towards the rail in the Frontrunner, nearly hindering runner-up Swipe and he drifted out late in both the Del Mar Futurity and the San Vicente. While often viewed as the behavior of a tired horse, it is worth noting that each of these instances occurred while he was under a drive and being pressured by a horse to his outside. When he was the one on the outside throughout the far turn in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he kept to task nicely, so we’ll chalk this up to more likely being a quirk of his rather than the sign of fatigue.

If this were the old days of gymnastics, Mohaymen’s score in this category would be a 10 out of 10. He does not simply beat the horses he faces, he obliterates them. He takes horses who appeared to be trending upwards and crushes them, geared down and drawing off late. While he is strolling home under a hand ride, his opponents are being hard ridden heading into the far turn, leaving the viewer to watch a powerful display of true dominance. He is professional in every way -- an unusual trait for a Tapit -- but he showed it prior to the Fountain of Youth when nearly every other horse acted up, he was cool as a cucumber.
Advantage: Mohaymen

Nyquist’s is a bear to pass down the lane. In his debut, he fought off Annie’s Candy not once, but twice. That was a sign of what was to come because in nearly every race he has ran since, someone looked like he would blow by him late only for Nyquist to prevail. Some horses find their best when they’re in a fight and Nyquist appears to be one of these types. As soon as he lulls one into thinking he can win, he crushes his spirit by slamming the door shut. If there is a horse in this crop who destroys the confidence of his opponents, it is Nyquist.

Mohaymen’s strength is his mind. He clearly is an intelligent individual who is able to adapt to a variety of situations. A key trait to have come Kentucky Derby time, Mohaymen has never appeared flustered or stressed despite situations not always panning out in his favor. When unforeseen circumstances arise in race, he is the one who is able to best cope, regather himself and press on. In the Fountain of Youth stakes, for example, Mohaymen was roused early when wide in order to get into a striking position in what had not been a quickly run race to that point. He was wide at points and in a race which saw a fair amount of chaos affect those around him in running, he kept to task throughout.
Advantage: Mohaymen

There is mention of Mohaymen’s tactical speed often, but I don’t see it. Every time he has routed, he has encountered a pace on the slower side and every single time he has sat off the pace. In the Nashua, Remsen and Fountain of Youth stakes, they were far from flying out front and yet he was multiple lengths off the lead at the first call. Get Mohaymen in a race with true early speed and I doubt he can be placed prominently without being used up out of the gate.

What Nyquist lacks is the potent turn of foot which Mohaymen possesses. While he does not need the lead, Nyquist could struggle should he be shuffled back in running or be steadied at any point because he has a fairly one-paced, grinding style. Without that burst of acceleration, maintaining his momentum in running is paramount. What is his weakness can turn into his strength if he is ridden aggressively, however. By making his move into the far turn as is his norm, he draws out the turn of foot of the deeper closers, often leaving them with too much to do late if they weren’t already forced to make an early move in order to keep up. His knockout move is a one-dimensional one in that sense, but it is potent and will flat out win races.
Advantage: Nyquist

Will They Stay The Trip?
It’s short and sweet on the Mohaymen front on this category since he already won the Remsen Stakes over nine furlongs.

Whether or not Nyquist will stay the Florida Derby trip is a much different story, however, but one which should be a completely separate topic from whether or not he will stay the trip in the Kentucky Derby. Nine furlongs is a different kettle of fish than 10 and with that in mind, he did win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over eight and a half furlongs, so he only needs to stay a half furlong further this time around. While it is true that Nyquist was treading water late in that affair with the second, third and fourth place finishers all finishing their final sixteenth of a mile more quickly, that stat does come with an asterisk. From the three quarter pole to the finish, Nyquist was actually the second fastest finisher with only Swipe besting him in that category. Also, bear in mind Nyquist had to be used some out of the gate in order to be best positioned from the wide draw and even still he travelled significantly further than the entire field. All things considered, he stayed on well in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and half a furlong should be within his realm. The real distance concerns come into play for the Kentucky Derby depending on his showing here.
Advantage: Mohaymen

Is This Just A Prep?
Much has been spoken about this race being “only a prep” for Mohaymen whereas Nyquist will be cranked for a big effort in this spot, which is probably being a bit overblown.

Mohaymen is a son of leading sire Tapit, after all, and a G1 win to his name could mean big bucks in the breeding shed, so rest assured connections would love to win this race. By all accounts, the screws were tightened on Mohaymen prior to the Fountain of Youth, however, so it wouldn’t surprised if he were to be freshened a tad coming into what will be his final Kentucky Derby prep in order to avoid him going over the top before the first Saturday in May.

Nyquist, on the other hand, comes into this race having only raced once since last October. With a million dollar bonus for being a Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale graduate on the line and him travelling across the country specifically for this race, this camp is clearly going all in. Trainer Doug O’Neill is great at aiming a quality horse for a specific race. That combined with him being lightly raced as a three-year-old (and in general for that matter) could result in him running the best race of his career, something he will need to do in order to defeat Mohaymen should he run to form. Nevertheless, team Nyquist clearly has more to gain in this situation so while the connections of Mohaymen are most definitely trying to win this race as well, special consideration may be taken with the goal of having him peak on Kentucky Derby day in mind. As far as Nyquist is concerned, however, this is his Kentucky Derby.
Advantage: Nyquist

And The Winner Is…
Mohaymen and Nyquist are ridiculously evenly matched at this state of their careers. With Mohaymen having home field advantage in his favor and already being proven over the distance, however, it is reasonable to believe he is more likely to be the shorter price of the two at post time. Nyquist has proven himself a good traveller, however, and Gulfstream Park is a course which should play kindly to his running style. With a larger field than previously expected on tap, Nyquist could be aided, as it could easily lead to Mohaymen being further back than most expect given his lack of early foot. Drawing post nine of ten does Mohaymen no favors, either. Should he break well, Nyquist is positioned as the inside speed in post four which should see him working out a forwardly placed, ground saving trip. It’s a tactical advantage which he will not relinquish easily. At the likely prices, he’s the pick.
The pick: Nyquist

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hong Kong Derby Preview

The BMW Hong Kong Derby is just over a week away, and as the best four-year-olds in Hong Kong prepare to do battle over 2000m, we want to have an early look at the slated field.

(Starcraft - Stormy Choice, by Redoute's Choice)
Drawn wide in a whopping 10 of his 14 career runs, it’s fair to say Blizzard hasn't had luck on his side. Despite taking the overland route in many of his runs, though, he has consistently risen to the occasion this season. While his best win this season came at the expense of the well-regarded Thewizardofoz, his third beaten a neck in the Hong Kong Classic Cup was sensational. Those who are against him will argue that his pedigree is not that of a 2000m horse, but on the track he shapes as one who will see out this trip.

(Lope de Vega - Mundus Novus, by Unbridled's Song)
Third in the G1 St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, Consort arrived in Hong Kong as a lightly raced individual full of promise. Highlighting the difficulty of acclimatizing to new surroundings, Consort has struggled in three local runs to date with his poor racing manners often getting the best of him. Several equipment changes have been made in that time frame to varying degrees of success, but the addition of blinkers in two recent trials looks like it may be the answer for the entire. It is not likely that he will find the amount of improvement necessary to win here, but he gives every indication he is heading in the right direction and that merits respect, especially given his proven class.

Eastern Express
(Fastnet Rock - Mohican Princess, by Shirley Heights)
His rating may not have been on par with those he faced in the Hong Kong Classic Cup, but he more than showed he belonged, missing by only a neck after copping the worst of a good tempo early. Already a winner over the Hong Kong Derby course and distance, Eastern Express has found a new level in his three most recent runs, with Karis Teetan aboard on every occasion. He is not receiving nearly the hype of Giovanni Canaletto or Werther following the Hong Kong Classic Cup, but his run was every bit as good given he was positioned forward early just behind Green Dispatch, who set a quick first 600m. He also pulled hard early and yet he still found himself in the blanket photo finish. In a group which features few true 2000m horses, Eastern Express looks the one best suited at this trip.

Friends Of Ka Ying [Almalad]
(Al Maher - Ilhaam, by Secret Savings)
While in the Gai Waterhouse stable in Australia, the highlight of Friends Of Ka Ying's career came as a late season juvenile when he took the G1 J.J. Atkins over a mile, defeating eventual Royal Ascot Diamond Jubilee Stakes runner-up Brazen Beau. Since arriving in Hong Kong, he has notched one win from four local starts and it came at the expense of fellow Hong Kong Derby runner Helene Paragon over 1400m, although Friends Of Ka Ying did have fitness in his favor that day. He can best be described as an inconsistent sort throughout his career and considering he came from the Waterhouse stable, it is likely he performed to the best of his capabilities in Australia. He also does not appear as suited by this distance as his rivals and for those reasons, he will have a tough time maintaining his edge over Helene Paragon, let alone the other top contenders.

Giovanni Canaletto
(Galileo - Love Me True, by Kingmambo)
His slashing run in the Hong Kong Classic Cup, with a final 400m of 23.43 -- easily the fastest of the field -- caught the eye and has led to him being marked up as the Hong Kong Derby favorite in some markets in Europe and Australia. Formerly under the care of Aidan O'Brien, he showed potential when finishing among the top four in both the English and Irish versions of the Derby. His best runs overseas came over 2400m, so the trip is no concern, but he got a favorable pace scenario in the Hong Kong Classic Cup and it is unlikely the Hong Kong Derby will be run in similar fashion. That being said, he has been a standout in trials and works recently. He is a key player, but likely as an underlay.

Green Dispatch [War Dispatch]
(War Front - Photograph, by Unbridled's Song)
Green Dispatch arrived in Hong Kong with some of the more immediately recognizable form lines. The Group 3 Prix de Guiche winner was third to New Bay in the Prix du Jockey Club before struggling through a driving rainstorm behind Highland Reel in the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park. While he won an impressive five races in a row as he rose through the ranks in France, his headstrong tendencies have got the better of him on more than one occasion. That habit has not changed since his arrival in Hong Kong. If anything, the addition of blinkers in his most recent start resulted in him racing more fiercely. He did behave himself better in recent works without blinkers, but he is probably one best left alone until he is better acclimatized -- and gelded.

Helene Paragon [Sir Andrew]
(Polan - High Zaff, by High Chaparral)
A winner in both France and Spain, Helene Paragon's best run abroad was a third behind Territories in the Prix Jean Prat last year. While he was untested over further than 1600m in Europe, Helene Paragon is bred to get over ground and has shaped like a horse who will relish 2000m, particularly when recently winning over 1800m against Class 2 company. Perhaps the only concern for Helene Paragon is his struggle to win while carrying a larger weight. Overseas, he was 1-for-4 while carrying 126+ lbs and locally, his sole disappointing run came when he had to carry more than 117 lbs. He is not an overly large individual, so perhaps he feels the weight late more than some of his rivals.

Hero Look
(Lope de Vega - Roscoff, by Daylami)
Hero Look has been one of the more puzzling horses in this field. A G3 winner in Italy, he arrived with form through local runner Wah May Friend, who has gone close on a few occasions against Class 2 and 3 company but is yet to win locally. Hero Look's Hong Kong debut was fantastic as he charged into second, only a neck behind Celestial Smile and ahead of Thewizardofoz. Since that run, however, Hero Look has not looked the same horse in races, workouts or trials. He clearly has talent, but perhaps we won't see it come to fruition until he is freshened.

Lucky Girl [More Soccer]
(Onemorenomore - Bani Yas, by Zabeel)
The lowest rated horse in the field is an intriguing player. Once you get past the fact he is a gelding named "Lucky Girl" you will find that he has performed well this season. Not only did he notch a thumping win over a mile in Class 3 company, defeating Leading Horse, but his only unplaced run this season was fresh over 1200m. Having only ran six times to date, Lucky Girl appeals in that he likely has more improvement in hand. He is the trip notes horse of this group in that he was blocked for a run for much of the straight last time out and with 130 lbs on his back, he still nearly caught the winner. His sire Onemorenomore is a young stallion who although probably best as a miler, finished second in a G3 over 2000m. Lucky Girl's pedigree is miler speed over stamina through damsire Zabeel, making him an intriguing prospect with the step up in trip. What Lucky Girl has in his favor is that he possesses good tactical speed combined with a sharp turn of foot which could allow for him to get a jump on backmarkers like Giovanni Canaletto and Werther. Whether or not he is good enough at this point of his career to hold them off remains the question.

King Genki [Toruk]
(Arcano - Celestina Agostino, by Street Cry)
I was able to see several of these newcomers in the flesh in December and none caught the eye more than King Genki. Known as Toruk in his native France, he is a dour sort who did not show much until stepped up to 2100m with his best performance a third behind Hong Kong Vase placegetter Dariyan and fellow Hong Kong Derby entrant Green Dispatch. His only run locally was in the Hong Kong Classic Mile, where he was a tailed off last after setting the speed alongside Dashing Fellow early. He recently trialed superbly over the dirt when splitting Master Kochanwong and Luger, responding well when asked. Over the dirt will perhaps be where he finds his best form, too, given the strong all-weather influences in his pedigree.

Sun Jewellery [Tan Tat Sun]
(Snitzel - Tan Tat Star, by Umatilla)
Bidding to become the first horse to win Hong Kong's Four-Year-Old Series, Sun Jewellery has been perpetually underrated by analysts and punters alike. His class and staying ability have been a point of contention in the past, and yet he lines up having won three straight and six of seven in Hong Kong. His Australian form through Winston's Lad has even stood up, with the latter winning his first two races after being imported to Hong Kong. By star stallion Snitzel, Sun Jewellery's pedigree is borderline at best for 2000m, but time and time again his class has seen him through. While Werther is touted as the stronger stayer, Sun Jewellery's final 400m in the Hong Kong Classic Cup was actually faster. His tactical speed often results in him being well placed early, which is especially potent given how little early speed the stronger stayers in this field possess. While it may be trendy to look elsewhere, every time Sun Jewellery has been overlooked in the past, he has popped up for the win.

Victory Magic [Atmosphere]
(Savabeel - Zephyr Song, by Danasinga)
He's never been first past the post, although he does have a Listed win to his name courtesy of a disqualification, and it is hard to imagine him finishing first here. Second in the Moonee Valley Vase over the trip, this distance is not a query, but the class of this field most definitely is. He has been second in four of his five runs this season, but it was in his most recent run over 2000m where he looked a potential winner at every point in running bar the point that actually mattered. In a field of horses who are perhaps known more for their tenacity than their brilliance, it is difficult to see him outgaming the lot of them late.

(Tavistock - Bagalollies, by Zabeel)
Werther arrived in Hong Kong with lofty credentials, including a second behind Delicacy in the G1 South Australian Derby. While popular belief is that he should improve for the step up to 2000m, the fact he was unable to finish faster than Sun Jewellery in the closing stages over 1800m despite getting the run of the race is alarming. He has shown himself to be a dour type and his short turn of foot has to be used near the top of the straight, resulting in him not finding the line strongly. In order to run to his best in Hong Kong, it is instead likely he will need further than he will get in the Hong Kong Derby. Additionally, Werther has many more runs under his belt than his rivals here, so while some of them are eligible for further improvement, he is likely to have already ran to his peak.

White Magic [Bartel]
(Aussie Rules - Kirunavaara, by Galileo)
A winner over the polytrack at Kempton, White Magic brought mixed form to the table with the highlight a second in the Listed Sir Henry Cecil Stakes over a mile on the Newmarket July course. White Magic has historically struggled to get out of the gates, ceding crucial ground to his rivals time and time again. He also does not appear to be a 2000m horse with his best runs locally and abroad both coming over a mile or shorter.