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

Photo by Avinash Bhat

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