Finally, Champ Nyquist Alone at the Top
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., April 2, 2016--Kiaran McLaughlin walked into the owners and trainers lounge minutes before the Honey Fox Stakes, the 13th of 14 races, a program on which bettors across America wagered a record $32 million+ .
On Florida Derby day, the horsemen’s lounge becomes a press box, accommodating media not seen here on a weekly basis, never mind daily.
The Florida Derby is always a big deal but the 65th renewal was more than that. It was considered the Kentucky Derby five weeks in advance of May’s first Saturday. Most observers felt that way and the energy in the building reflected as much.
“Did they seal the track?” McLaughlin asked me, closest to him when he sat comfortably in a leather chair closest to the entrance. Yes and no, I said. “It was sealed most of the day but there was a period when it was opened for a while.”
The sun had returned after dark clouds opened minutes before the noon opener, rendering the track sloppy in five minutes time. Track superintendent John Grillon tried his best to squeegee the surface dry and it was working until it rained heavily again.
“We asked Mario [Gutierrez] earlier in the day, how’s the track?” recalled winning trainer Doug O’Neill in the post-race press conference. “He said the track seemed tiring. Oh ####, that ain’t no good,” exclaimed the ever playful O’Neill.
“So we asked Doug’s son Daniel to do a rain dance and then it started pouring,” said owner Paul Reddam. “When it rained, we were happy.”
“But I think he’ll handle it. He’s a Tapit, and he has those small feet.”
[Wide feet are the providence of the turf specialist. Small feet act like a plunder, sinking into the wet ground and providing better traction over slippery surfaces].
The time came to visit the paddock to see the Florida Derby horses. The 10 runners entered the ring and most were a little wet, a product of the hot and heavy air. Not so Nyquist who was a picture of controlled energy, but not so Mohaymen.
The Florida Derby favorite has been nothing if not a perfect specimen here all winter, winning with speed in reserve, hardly taking a deep breath in the circle following his Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth victories. He had presence, a bright, inquisitive eye. When you looked into it there always was someone home, taking in everything in.
That look was missing in the walking ring on Saturday and in the final analysis, so was Mohaymen. Head down slightly, the energy that was there all winter was absent. And then he was led onto a surface with which the home-track horse was entirely unfamiliar.
“I’m a person that doesn’t like to blame the track all the time,” said Mohaymen’s rider, Junior Alvarado, post-race. “I would say the only difference is that he never took me.
“He’s a horse that all the time he drags me and jump [sic] in the bridle right away. This time he wasn’t pulling me. It got me a little worried.”
“He was pretty wide throughout,” said a visibly disappointed McLaughlin, but the track is wet and we wanted to stay in the clear. Congratulations to the winner, he ran big. We were awfully wide throughout and with the track you never know.”
“I was where I wanted to be the whole race and he didn’t fire this time,” the rider said. That’s all I can really tell you. Something was probably going on with him today, he just didn’t run the race that we were expecting.”
The O’Neill camp came into the event confident and with high expectations. Nyquist justified all that and then some. He was a running machine right from the first jump out of the gate.
“Mario [Gutierrez] rode a brilliant race,” the trainer said. “He showed the way out of there and just kept on going, improved his position. Mario won the first turn, and the first turn won the race.”
While Mario was winning the first turn, Mohaymen, four horses wide and bumped slightly, carrying him a tad wider, struggled to keep pace. “I tried to stay with him,” Alvarado explained, “and give him a chance to get it all together.
“By the three-eighths pole I saw Nyquist getting along in front by himself and I had to move my horse. By that point he always drags me there and this time I’m the one asking him. The track could be one little reason but there’s nothing else I can really say.”
O’Neill admitted that just for an instant he was concerned as Mohaymen drew closer to his rival at headstretch.
O’Neill admitted that at that point he was concerned “for a split second, but Mario did a little Angel Cordero,” forcing Mohaymen even wider. “I was more concerned with horses coming up on the inside.” The challenge was on for two jumps and then it was gone.
Nyquist was scheduled to leave for Keeneland at 9 am Sunday morning, the same track that gave him a juvenile championship. “He seems to run on anything and we have the option to train on the synthetic [training track] there. That course is such a blessing.”
Nyquist is blessed and keeps demonstrating despite his doubters that he’s the best of his generation. The Florida Derby was the fourth Grade 1 of his seven race undefeated career. But the waters will only get deeper five weeks hence and doubters will reappear.
The son of Uncle Mo never has failed to answer the bell but at Churchill Downs he will have bigger and many more fish to fry. “We just have to all keep our feet on the ground and there’s a lot more wood to chop,” Reddam said.
As for the vanquished? “We’ll regroup,” McLaughlin said afterward.
"We’re happy that he’s happy this morning," McLaughlin told Phil Janack of the Gulfstream press office Sunday. "We can move forward to the Kentucky Derby.”
The HRI Derby Power 10, Week 6:
1. Nyquist (48) the champ is alone at the top, no more flying under the radar.
2. Gun Runner (33) there’s hot prospects and there’s not, he’s hot
3. Shagaf (30) new #2 after Wood Memorial?
4. Danzig Candy (22) harness or unharness the speed, that is the question?
5. Mohaymen (28) the mighty has fallen, rebound or portent of future?
6. Destin (20) finally come to himself or Oldsmar wonder-horse?
7. Mor Spirit (17) figures to run big on Saturday
8. Cupid (12) figures to run big the following Saturday
9. Zulu (10) find out more in the weeks ahead
10. Mo Tom (9) as odd as it sounds, Amoss wise to stick with Lanerie at Churchill
Written by John Pricci - Comments (9)