— Some thought it a gamble to ship unbeaten Nyquist across the country to face the early Kentucky Derby favorite Mohaymen on his home surface of Gulfstream Park.
As it turned out, it wasn't much of a gamble at all.
Nyquist, despite a wide trip, dominated as he pulled away toward the finish line to win the $1-million Florida Derby by 3 1/4 lengths Saturday. In addition, the horse's connections got a $1-million bonus because the horse was bought at the Fasig-Tipton sale at Gulfstream last year.
Mohaymen finished a disappointing fourth. Majesto was second and Fellowship was third.
The race was shaping up to be the battle of unbeatens that everyone expected. Nyquist broke alertly and went to the lead, a position he held except for a few strides on the backstretch when longshot Sawyers Mickey poked his nose in front.
Mohaymen started to make his move on the far turn as the two entered the stretch set for what looked like a match race. But Mohaymen was no match Saturday as Nyquist finished the final 16th with ease for his seventh win.
"I saw the gray horse coming from my side," jockey Mario Gutierrez said of Mohaymen. "I'm running the race with confidence so if he was going to pass me he was going to have to pass me running."
But it didn't happen.
"Like [owner] Paul [Reddam] said, I had a little reservation a month or so ago because of Mohaymen being in his own backyard," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "Do we really want to do something like that? We all very quickly got on the same page. I think we had a very lucky trip. Mario broke great, did a great job of riding. Everything just went right."
Some have been skeptical of Nyquist given that his sire, Uncle Mo, never won a race at 1 1/4 miles, the Kentucky Derby distance. Gutierrez called it a media invention because "nothing bothers him."
But O'Neill admits he hears the talk.
"You never know, going a mile and eighth in only his second time out as a 3-year-old," O'Neill said. "We would be lying if we all didn't say we were optimistic, but you never know. He exceeded our expectations, for sure."
Two downpours left the track wet but not sloppy. In fact, the track seemed to play in Nyquist's favor.
"When it rained we were happy," Reddam said. "Before the races got going, we thought, 'Uh, oh, maybe the track will dry out.' So I had Doug's son Daniel do a rain dance, and then it started pouring."
Junior Alvarado, Mohaymen's jockey, didn't offer any excuses.
"I was where I wanted to be the whole race and he didn't fire this time," Alvarado said. "That's all I really can tell you. There's nothing wrong with him."
Mohaymen, who had won his first five races, went off as the favorite at 3-5. Nyquist was a shade over even money
"This is something we drew up," O'Neill said of the route through Florida rather than staying at Santa Anita. "We thought two preps before the Derby was going to leave him with a lot of fresh legs and he's got a lot of miles underneath him in the morning.
"Right now we feel extremely happy, and like all horses you have to keep him injury free. He's got the mind-set of a champion so now it's up to the whole crew and the racing gods to keep him injury free."
Nyquist will fly to Keeneland, Ky., on Sunday morning to finish his training before going to Churchill Downs for the May 7 Kentucky Derby.
O'Neill, Gutierrez and Reddam are the same team that took I'll Have Another to the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012. I'll Have Another scratched in the Belmont and was retired.
When asked about the comparison, Reddam joked, "Like I said, I'll Have Another."
Another Kentucky Derby winner is a tall order. But on this Saturday, it's tough to say there is a 3-year-old in the country better than Nyquist.