A beginning list of contenders for the 142nd Run for the Roses
By Bill Doolittle
It’s February. Brrrrrrr … cold outside.
But in sunnier climes the nation’s top three-year-old thoroughbreds are in full training mode, hooves already kicking up dirt along the Derby Prep Trail of important races that will determine -- by points -- the starting field for the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby, May 7, 2016 at Churchill Downs.
In California, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida, the top two-year-olds of a season ago have come out running at three, stamping themselves as early favorites for the Kentucky Derby.
One is Nyquist, the champion two-year-old of 2015. Nyquist aired out all comers in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October at Keeneland Race Course, in Kentucky, and fired first out in February at Santa Anita to launch his 3-year-old season. Mor Quest, trained American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert, is also in full stride in California. And at Gulfstream Park, in Miami, Mohaymen just laughed at his competition in the Holy Bull Stakes, drawing oohs and ahhs. Dispatches sent home from those fair scenes arrived full of superlatives. And in every story, one could feel Derby Fever taking hold.
But longtime Kentucky Derby observers may be forgiven for taking a wait-and-see attitude. While those superstar speedters sound full of promise, we all know the quest has just begun – and the races get longer. Ahead in March and April lie the famous Kentucky Derby prep races – Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby – and more. Battles ahead, and new horses to be heard from. More drama to unfold in the weeks coming to the first Saturday in May.
So the advice here is to be careful about hitching your wagon to the bright shining stars of February. Don’t spread all your salt on icy streets. Save some to roll out a large grain of salt for reports arriving of the next Wonder Horse.
But then again, maybe caution is best thrown to the wind. What could be more fun than to jump in the saddle of a promising prospect and ride it right into the winners circle at Churchill Downs? Be the first on your block to pick the Derby winner!
So, coming to March, here’s a look at the steeds on the lead:
Starting with Mohaymen, who is unbeaten in four starts. Last fall he notched the Nashua and Remsen Stakes in New York, came out running, as we like to say, in his three-year-old debut at Gulfstream Park in Miami. Mohaymen – which we understand means “protector” in Arabic -- is owned by the powerful Shadwell Stable of Sheik Hamden bin Rashid al Maktoum, and trained by top America trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The horse is a gray, sired by the stellar sire Tapit, who often stamps his offspring with his own gray color.
McGlauhlin told racing writer Karen M. Johnson he likes the style his horse displayed when he split rivals in the stretch to win the Remsen, at 1 1/8 miles.
“He has a great pedigree and mind,” says McLaughlin. “He just doesn’t get tired. It’s hard to describe. He rarely blows at all. He recovers quickly after a work and after a race. With everything combined, it’s a huge edge for a trainer going forward to have a well-bred horse who has won going 1 1/8 miles in November as a 2-year-old -- and who doesn’t get tired. He has it all. He’s the whole package.”
A nice enough thing, being 4-for-4, but California-based Nyquist doesn’t take a back seat to that. He’s 6-for-6, including the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland, in Kentucky.
Nyquist, too, has come out running at three, taking the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita.
Trainer Doug O’Neill plans to start Nyquist next in the Florida Derby (where he could meet Mohaymen) – then on to Kentucky. If he can win the Florida Derby AND the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist will earn a $1 million bonus – added to the $1.7 million he’s already banked, plus possible millions more in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby purses. That’s a lot of kale.
And also a very, very tough assignment. But Nyquist’s connections have history. In 2012, trainer O’Neill, owner Paul Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez took the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with I’ll Have Another. Nyquist is named for Detroit Red Wings hockey star Gustav Nyquist.
The caution on Nyquist is his speed-dominated pedigree, which would seem unsuitable at the Derby Distance – though the horse, himself, might counter, “Ain’t nobody beat me yet.”
Also showing strongly in the San Vicente was Exaggerator, who is trained by Keith Desormeaux, and ridden by his brother Kent, who has won the Kentucky Derby three times. This handicapper wouldn’t worry too much that Exaggerator couldn’t catch Nyquist at seven furlongs. His pedigree isn’t brimming with stamina, but he should improve with added distance. A horse to watch.
Another training in California is Mor Spirit, who just won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Last November, Mor Spirit was second over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, suggesting he might like the dirt at the Downs – as have his Hall-of-Fame jockey-trainer combo of Gary Stevens and Bob Baffert. Stevens has won three Derbys, Baffert four.
I think that’s the top four, with Gun Runner, the recent winner of the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, in New Orleans, rounding out a top five.
Reaching for ten, we’ll add Smokey Image, because he’s got an underdog’s storyline, coming off the California fair circuit, and now 6-for-6. Yes, another undefeated horse!
Throw in Brody’s Cause, who comes from far, far back – and whose home track is Churchill Downs. Greenpointcrusader won the Champagne Stakes last fall. Destin just won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. And we’ll add one more to make a Top Ten, which will be … oh, how about Awesome Banner, who has never been headed.