Sports have produced some great rivalries over the years.
Ali and Frazier.
Bird and Magic.
Evert and Navratilova.
Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.
Horse racing’s version of Superman versus Batman is on tap Saturday afternoon.
The top two colts in most Derby polls will go head-to-head in the $1 million Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and undefeated 2-year-old champion Nyquist (6-5) shipped from his West Coast base in California earlier in the week to meet even-money favorite Mohaymen, unbeaten in five career races.
The race offers 100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers as part of the Championship Series portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Both Nyquist (30 points) and Mohaymen (70 points) look to have a lock on a spot in Louisville so this test is more about who will emerge as the favorite on the First Saturday in May. Post time for the Florida Derby is 6:48 p.m.
The other Derby prep race is scheduled at Turfway Park, just outside of Cincinnati, where the $400,000 Grade 3 Spiral Stakes a little over an hour before the big matchup in Florida.
It’s unusual that two horses from opposite coasts will meet prior to the big dance in Louisville and put their undefeated records on the line.
Mohaymen, the star of Shadwell Stables, has been training all winter in Florida and has wins in both races at Gulfstream that serve as warm-ups for the Florida Derby. He soundly won both the Grade 3 Holy Bull and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth over the Gulfstream strip.
So why did Nyquist, who comes into the race with only a victory in the 7-furlong San Vicente at Santa Anita under his belt in 2016, ship east to face Mohaymen before the Derby? Likely, it’s the $1 million bonus incentive offered to any horse that went through the ring at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of selected 2-year-olds in training last March.
The Doug O’Neill-trained son of Uncle Mo is the only horse in the race eligible for the bonus, as his owner Reddam Racing purchased him for $400,000 in that sale. Since then he has earned over $1.7 million in his six straight victories.
Mohaymen trainer Kiaran McLaughlin saw Nyquist at the Breeders’ Cup and came away impressed, so he knows his colt is in for a test this afternoon.
“He’s just very game and determined and he’s hard to get by,” he said. “At the Breeders’ Cup, I didn’t think he could win the race from where he was into the first turn, and yet he still won and beat out a nice group of horses.”
Nyquist, named after Detroit Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist, has been behind Mohaymen in most Derby polls and Vegas future boards. This hasn’t fazed O’Neill, who trained I’ll Have Another to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. I think as long as our horse continues to do well, I have no problem with what the experts are saying,” O’Neill said. “It just makes for an even more exciting day because we’re very optimistic about how the race will unfold.”
That said, Mohaymen has the home-court advantage and hasn’t had to ship across the country and run at Gulfstream for the first time.
On paper it looks as though the rest of the 10-horse field is running for the third and fourth-place points, as the third choice on the morning line is Takeittotheedge at 15-1. His trainer, Dale Romans, is looking forward to the matchup as much as anyone.
“You’ve got the two best horses in the country,” he said. “They usually all wait until they get to Kentucky, so it’s going to be very interesting.”
Romans, who trained Keen Ice to a Travers upset of American Pharoah last summer, is hoping that his front-running colt can sneak in a claim a prize.
“It’s a lot different competition here, but speed is always dangerous. He should be in front and we’ll see if he’s good enough to hang on, get a check and get some points.”
McLaughlin isn’t shying away from the challenge presented by Nyquist and doesn’t think a tough race will take too much out of either colt with the Derby five weeks out.
“This is a really tough race, which it probably will be tough on both of us, but we have five weeks to recover which is great,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not like it’s three weeks, and it’d be nice to have a little challenge also, or more of a challenge than we’ve had, and see where we’re at. We’re looking forward to Saturday.”
Let’s hope it’s the start of a great rivalry.
Post Time Outlook – 1- Mohaymen; 2 – Nyquist; 3 – Takeittotheedge; 4 – Isofass
Overshadowed by the big matchup in Florida is the Spiral, which attracted 12 horses to run 1-1/16 miles on the Polytrack at Turfway Park. The race will offer 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers and is the last race to be contested on an all-weather surface on the Road to the Derby.
The morning line favorite, Airoforce (3-1), comes out of 10th-place finish in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and seemingly was going to be taken off the Derby trail by trainer Mark Casse. He reconsidered after he has trained well and Turfway’s synthetic surface presents an interesting pathway to Churchill Downs, a course where Airoforce won last November.
Other hopefuls in the Spiral include Azar (5-1), Kasseopia (6-1) and Jensen (6-1). Local prep winner Surgical Strike (12-1) could be a live longshot consideration for trainer Ben Colebrook.
Azar won his only dirt race, after six turf starts at Gulfstream against a solid field and seems to fit here for trainer Todd Pletcher, who wins 42 percent of the time when switching a horse from a dirt surface to all-weather.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Azar; 2 – Kasseopia; 3 – Jensen; 4 – Surgical Strike
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.