About this time of year, there is no shortage of people who think they have a good sense of what’s going to happen in the Kentucky Derby. This year, for a change, they may actually be right.
A good indicator of what may happen comes a week from Saturday at the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. In a historical rarity, the best horse from the East and the best from the West will run against each other before the Kentucky Derby. And both are undefeated.
There is Nyquist, winner of six and voted top 2-year-old last year after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, representing the West. He’s the underdog.
From the East is Mohaymen, who has won his five races with such ease that no one is sure how good he can be. Although his $2.2-million purchase price as a yearling is probably a good indication.
Jay Privman, national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form who will be covering his 34th consecutive Kentucky Derby this year, said he couldn’t find any report in which undefeated No. 1 and 2 horses have met prior to the Derby.
“One of the reasons is that horses used to run a lot more, so they had greater chances of getting beat,” Privman said. “But even with fewer races, this year is a very interesting and compelling story.”
Kurt Hoover, a TVG commentator who has been in racing for 29 years, also sees the uniqueness in this scenario.
“After those two, there is a big gap to the rest,” Hoover said. "[This is very unusual] because horses generally stay at home. West Coast horses stay for the Santa Anita Derby and East Coast horses stay where they run. It certainly adds some intrigue.”
One incentive for Nyquist to go to Florida was that if he wins, there is a $1-million bonus because he came out of a Gulfstream sale the year before.
With the idea of adding even more intrigue, here’s a look at the final Derby preps that each of the top contenders will be running.
UAE Derby (Saturday)
Frank Conversation, winner of both his races this year, is the only horse that could likely come out of the Dubai-based race and only if he finishes first or second. He has the same connections as Nyquist, trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam, and they have always been unafraid to roll the dice.
“Until a horse runs in that race and does well in the Derby, I’m not going to pay much attention,” Hoover said.
Louisiana Derby (Saturday)
Gun Runner is coming off a win at the Risen Star over the same track and is the second favorite behind Mo Tom, who finished third in that race. Mo Tom had a troubled stretch drive and looked like he had plenty of run left.
The third favorite is Greenpointcrusader, but he’ll have to move forward to stay on the Derby trail.
“I’m a little suspect he’s as effective going two turns [as] one turn,” Privman said. “This race will give us more data on him.”
Santa Anita Derby (April 9)
Next to the April 2 Florida Derby, this is the marquee matchup. The March 12 San Felipe Stakes was easily the best Derby prep of the year and the top five horses are all coming back at 1/16 of a mile longer.
There is no shortage of story lines.
• Is Danzing Candy for real after winning his only stakes race convincingly?
• Mor Spirit looked like he had a lot left, so how much will he improve as the races get longer?
• Is Exaggerator a Derby-length (1 1/4 miles) horse or possibly a miler as his trainer Keith Desormeaux has wondered?
• Was Smokey Image, a previously undefeated California-bred, simply outclassed in the San Felipe or do you just throw that race out?
“You had to wonder why [Smokey Image] decided not to try that race,” Privman said. “His previous races are all good. It was a weird race. But for a $1-million purse against the same group, why not go for it?”
Blue Grass Stakes/Wood Memorial (April 9)
It’s unclear where some of the eastern horses will be shipped for their final prep.
Destin, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby; Zulu, second to Mohaymen in the Fountain of Youth; and Outwork, second to Destin in Tampa, are all trained by Todd Pletcher. He’ll decide how to divide them up in the next few weeks.
Shagaf, winner of the Gotham, and Matt King Coal, an allowance winner with a lot of finish, look set for the Wood.
Brody’s Cause, a very disappointing seventh in Tampa, is confirmed for the Blue Grass.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple out of Fair Grounds [in New Orleans] also go for that race,” Privman said.
Arkansas Derby (April 16)
This is where trainer Bob Baffert could learn if Cupid, a strong but green winner of the Rebel over the same track, is ready for the Kentucky Derby. This would be the same path Baffert used to get American Pharoah to Louisville. Baffert has not officially committed to this race.
“That’s a horse that doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s just winning on talent,” Hoover said. “Those kind of horses can get real good, real fast in the hands of a trainer as good as Baffert.”
Hoover summed up the next few weeks by comparing it to March Madness.
“It sounds pretty basic,” Hoover said. “But you have a lot of teams in the tournament that are pretty good. But then they play the really good ones and it’s over. It separates the teams quickly.”