The big prep races start this weekend
Horse racing is entering the final month of prep races and before you know it, the Kentucky Derby will be here. America seems to be experiencing a bit of an American Pharoah hangover in 2016. In the Capital Region, the two biggest local newspapers seem to have scaled down their coverage of the Sport of Kings. And, let’s be honest, the American Pharoah saga, as good as it was, did take a lot out of both horse racing and sports fans alike.
But the sport moves on and the major prep races are upon us. The best horse thus far has been Mohaymen, who has been dominant in his two victories as a three-year-old. The son of Tapit glided to victory in the Holy Bull and then was very workmanlike in his Fountain of Youth victory. Right now, he would be my favorite, but the Florida Derby will have a lot to say regarding that this weekend.
Nyquist has been the other dominant colt of the 2016 campaign. He comes in as the juvenile champion and then cruised to victory in the San Vincente Stakes at Santa Anita. He is heading east to Gulfstream Park to take on Mohaymen in what should be a thrilling rendition of the Florida Derby. It will be interesting to see not only who wins, but how each colt comes out of the race. Winning is always important, but the Florida Derby is not a must-win race for either connections. Run well, come out healthy; that will be the main focus. If Mohaymen and Nyquist finish first and second and the race is competitive, and we can expect a serious buzz come the first week in May in Louisville.
Of course, just because there appear to be clear frontrunners, that certainly doesn’t mean much. The Derby features 20 horses and with that number, it’s anybody’s guess as to what can happen. For every American Pharoah, there is a Mine That Bird; for every Smarty Jones, there is a Giacomo. The most amazing feat of Pharoah’s Triple Crown run last year might have been his ability to navigate through the 19-horse field at Churchill Downs which is far from easy with bumping, grinding and getting boxed in all among the potential hazards.
Most horses try to get three prep races in before the Derby and most start with a 10-point race (for the winner), followed by a 50-point and then a 100-point race. The 100 point races started last week with both the UAE Derby and the Louisiana Derby with Lani and Gun Runner winning respectively. The question coming out of these races is simple: do the winning horses need another prep prior to the Derby? History says yes, but training methods have changed. Still, there are six weeks before the Derby, a long time, but given the thinking of the modern trainers, my hunch says the next time Lani and Gun Runner enter the gate will be at Churchill Downs on May 7.
After the Florida Derby on April 2, the next big races are the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial, both set for April 9. After that, the Arkansas Derby takes place on April 16 and before you can blink, it will be time for the Derby. We know that the Arkansas route has proven to be a fruitful one with Smarty Jones and American Pharoah winning last year and in 2004 before their Derby scores. If you watched all of Pharoah’s races last year, his best performance took place at Oaklawn Park in the Arkansas Derby where he glided to victory in the slop.
The New York path to the Kentucky Derby has not gone as well. The last horse to win both the Wood Memorial and the Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus back in 2000. We all love these kinds of statistics, and of course, they can be contrasted and shot down at any time. Funny Cide was second in the 2003 Wood, but then went on to win the both the Derby and the Preakness, so is it really that important? The folks at NYRA would like to see “one of theirs,” win in Louisville because that might encourage others to take the Aqueduct route in years to come.
Developing a game plan to get to Louisville is the hardest thing to do. Where do you start? Where do you end? Do you stay in one place like California, New York or Florida, or do you move around from one end to the other? In terms of prestige, the Florida Derby might rank ahead of the Wood, but if the Wood winner triumphs in the Derby, then things could change in a hurry.
Many casual racing fans are wondering if there is another Triple Crown threat for 2016. It took 37 years between Affirmed and American Pharoah, but we did have back-to-back crown winners in 1977 and 1978 with Seattle Slew in ’77 and the aforementioned Affirmed in ’78. The easy thing to say is that it will not happen. Simply, it is too hard, but both Mohaymen and Nyquist have the pedigree to pull it off. In 1978, Affirmed was pushed hard by Alydar, who finished second in all three Triple Crown races. Generally, when there are evenly matched horses, they divide and conquer. In 1989, Sunday Silence nipped Easy Goer in the Derby and the Preakness only to have his Triple Crown foiled by the Easy Goer in the Belmont.
What would happen if Nyquist, Mohaymen or some other horse won the first two legs? Could America embrace another chance to make history or would they ignore it, citing the old, “I just saw it,” mentality. The nation and those who cover the sport waited so long to see it happen and I wonder if they could “get up” for another run at history? Imagine if the Cubs won the World Series this year and then took a 3 games to 1 lead in the 2017 World Series? Would Cubs fan relish it as much? Part of the charm was the agonizing wait.
There are plenty of nice horses on the leaderboard as we head toward the first Saturday in May, but questions remain. The Florida Derby will tell us a lot going forward. If Mohaymen wins, he will wear the bullseye; if Nyquist wins, he will. If another horse emerges victorious, then all bets will be on.
The other thing to remember is the inexperience of the anticipated field. The major prep races are 1 1/8 miles, still an 1/8 of a mile short of the Kentucky Derby distance. Even the UAE Derby, contested at about 1 3/16 miles is still short of the 10 furlongs to be run in Louisville. Until we see a horse get 10 furlongs, it is more than fair to be skeptical.
The Florida Derby deserves the hype. It could be a race for the ages. Nyquist and Mohaymen are a combined 11 for 11 in their starts and kudos to the connections for bringing them together for a prep race. In the grand scheme of things, as long as each horse comes out healthy, then no blood will be lost, but should these two hook up in a classic race, then the first Saturday in May will really be teeming with excitement.
Until next time.