The most highly touted Derby prep matchup in years took place in the $1 million Florida Derby. A clash of the titans: an East vs. West showdown of unbeaten colts. It never happened.
Undefeated 2015 juvenile Eclipse Award-winning Nyquist rolled to an easy victory, stamping himself as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Geared down by jockey Junior Alvarado in the stretch, Mohaymen (4-5 favorite) wound up beaten by 8 ¼ lengths, finishing fourth.
“We feel like it was a perfect storm of unfortunate things that happened with the track, raining earlier and then later," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin from his barn office at the Palm Meadows training facility.
"Basically it was a very wet (track) and we were very wide. We ran 54 feet further than the winner, but congratulations to Nyquist and their team. They had to run over the same racetrack under the same conditions and they did it better than us. Hopefully we can turn the tables on May 7."
Rounding the far turn Mohaymen loomed up on the outside to challenge, but Nyquist (6-5 second betting choice) drifted wide forcing the gray-roan colt extremely wide. Mohaymen could not sustain his rally as Nyquist hit another gear and pulled away to win by a convincing 3 1/4 lengths. Majesto (21-1) finished strongly to grab second, a length ahead of the late-charging Fellowship.
"He jumps into the bridle right away so when we turn to the backside he’s pulling me," Alvarado explained. "That didn't happen, so it got me a little worried. By the three-eighths pole I saw Nyquist getting along in front by himself and I had to move my horse. By that point, he always drags me there and this time I’m the one asking him. I was where I wanted to be the whole race and he didn't fire this time. It happens. He wasn't his best today."
$1 Million Bonus
Still perfect, 7 for 7, Nyquist defeated Mohaymen on his home track, overcoming South Florida's humidity, a sloppy track and a cross-country trip. It was the fourth Grade-1 triumph of his career. Owner Paul Reddam's gamble paid off in a very lucrative way. His share of the 65th Florida Derby purse was $589,000. In addition, Nyquist earned a $1 million bonus offered by Fasig-Tipton to any graduate of the March 2015 Florida sale that went on to win the 2016 Florida Derby. The windfall boosted Nyquist's lifetime earnings to $3,333,600. Reddam purchased the son of Uncle Mo for $400,000.
"I broke so clean and so fast so I just had to take the lead," said jockey Mario Gutierrez. "I saw the gray horse (Mohaymen) coming to my side. If he was going to pass me, he was going to have to pass me running and wide.”
“I think we just had a very lucky trip," added trainer Doug O’Neill. "Mario broke great and did a great job riding and everything just went right. This whole trip other than being delayed one day getting to Gulfstream, everything else went right. So many things can go wrong in this business. Nyquist traveled well, looked well. He's got the mindset of a champion.”
In the Kentucky Derby points race, the top four finishers all likely have earned enough qualifying points, as Nyquist upped his total to 130 and Mohaymen to 80.
Fast and tractable with a powerful finishing kick, Mohaymen is yet another high-class son of super sire Tapit who led all sires by progeny earnings in both 2014 and 2015. The $2.2 million co-sale topper at Keeneland’s 2014 September yearling sale, Mohaymen is owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum's Shadwell Farm in Lexington, Ky.
Mohaymne is out of Justwhistledixie, a beautiful filly purchased by Terry Finley's West Point Thoroughbreds for $425,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale. Competing under West Point's black and gold silks, Justwhistledixie blossomed into one of the finer 3-year old fillies in 2009.
"I think he had some things go against him (in the Florida Derby)," Finley related. "I love his stalk and pounce style. He's trained by a world-class organization. It must be a great feeling going to that barn each morning."
A former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, McLaughlin is known for his sharp sense of humor. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, he now takes daily medication and is an active advocate for the disease. The trainer entered the 2016 season with more than 1,300 winners in North America with earnings of more than $94 million.
McLaughlin said that Mohaymen will arrive at Churchill Downs in time for two workouts prior to the Derby.
"The reason is because of the weather," the trainer said. "It's like a vitamin shot going into cooler weather after being down here for four months. I think that would help Mohaymen in general – not necessarily with liking the track or anything but maybe stimulate his appetite. He needs to put on a few pounds. I always feel like he's a little light."
Mohaymen triumphed in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes (both Grade-2) last fall at Aqueduct to close his 2-year-old season. He crushed a field of five in the $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes (Grade-2) taking command at the top of the stretch before being geared down by Alvarado at the end, winning by 3 1/2 lengths at Gulfstream Park in late January.
The Partnership Game
A native of Levittown, Pa., Finley began working at horse farms at age 12 and in high school was a groom at Monmouth Park during the summer months. He attended the U. S. Military Academy of West Point. A former Airborne Ranger, Finley was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany where he earned the ranks of second lieutenant, captain and company commander over eight years.
"I enjoyed my time in the military, but I was never absolutely convinced it was what I wanted to do with my life," Finley explained. "I started working with an insurance firm, dabbling with horses on the side."
In August 1991 Finley bought a claimer named Sun Belt for $5,000 at Philadelphia Park. Two weeks later the gelding won the third race at what is now Parx.
"That was it for me, I was off and rolling," said Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds.
Finley's goal is to bring the passion of top-notch racing and ownership to individuals and small groups across the country. Modeling his racing partnership after Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stables, Finley started up West Point around the Philadelphia region. After teaming up with bloodstock adviser Buzz Chance, West Point began attracting more and more clients.
Their first graded stakes winner was Ethan Man, winner of the Swales Stakes in 2002 and the stable's first Breeders Cup starter. Over the past 15 years Finley has ascended to the pinnacle of the sport, racing with Grade-1 winners Awesome Gem, Dream Rush, Flashy Bull, Irish Smoke, Lear's Princess, Ring Weekend, and Twilight Eclipse. Commanding Curve finished second in the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
Justwhistledixie broke her maiden in her third career start for trainer McLaughlin. Then the pretty daughter of Dixie Union went on a tear. Justwhistledixie won five consecutive races, four of them stakes, including the Davona Dale (Grade-2) and Bonnie Miss (Grade-2) Stakes going 1 1/8 mile at Gulfstream Park. Justwhistledixie was set to battle Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, but missed the race due to a foot bruise.
"We had to scratch her from the Oaks when she came up with a ‘hot nail' in a foot," Finley related. "Dixie was a likeable filly, very gentle. When the partners came to the barn to visit her I never had a concern. From little kids to older folks she was always the perfect lady. She took us on a fun ride, and always showed up to race. It’s not easy to win four straight stakes races, and she did it.”
Later that year Justwhistledixie was second in both the Acorn (Grade-1) Stakes and Top Flight (Grade-1) Handicap. She retired in spring 2010 with five wins from twelve career starts and earnings of $449,427.
Justwhistledixie's daddy, Dixie Union, sired Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, owned by Chadds Ford, Pa.'s Phyllis Wyeth, in 2012.
Focus on Athleticism
Since its inception, West Point has campaigned over 350 horses and introduced over 2,300 individuals to thoroughbred ownership. Specializing in the syndication of 2-year old racing prospects, West Point currently manages equine portfolios for nearly 500 partners and a stable of over 65 horses.
Finley's wife Debbie is West Point's Chief Administrative Officer and heads up business development. After running the business from an office in Mt. Laurel, N. J. for more than two decades, the Finleys recently relocated the main office and their primary residence to Saratoga Springs, N. Y.
West Point runners have competed in the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup, Travers, Preakness, Belmont, Dubai Sheema Classic, and Hong Kong Mile. West Point works with a dozen or so trainers, including some of the best in the game--Tom Albertrani, Craig Dollase, Graham Motion, Dallas Stewart and Dale Romans.
West Point will acquire 20 to 30 two-year olds this year. Finley and his team look first for athleticism, then pedigree. In late March the West Point buying team was hard at work in Ocala, adding eight new members to the stable from the OBS March 2-year-old in training sale. They also purchased three colts at the Fasig-Tipton Sale held at Gulfstream Park a couple weeks earlier. They included Fire for Effect, a Smart Strike colt sent to Romans; Johnny Hop, a Bodemeister colt sent to Motion; and Whole Lot of Luck, a Looking at Lucky colt sent to Stewart.
"Running in Florida, California and New York, our clients know they're in the deep end of the pool," Finley said. "We communicate frequently with our partners to keep them directly involved in the progress and status of their horses. We do things the right way, treat people with respect and take care of all our horses.
"Racing is a beautiful game and it's been an incredible journey for me over the past 25 years. We're big on the fun quotient. Our partners get to visit our horses at the training barns, watching morning workouts and, of course, the races. We want our partners to have fun. We're all hoping and striving for that one 'big horse.' That's what it's all about."
Superstar filly Songbird kept her record perfect by winning her seventh straight race in the Santa Anita Oaks (Grade-1) by 3 ¾ lengths on April 9. Owner Rick Porter's red-and-white silks barely had a splotch of mud on them as his gifted filly led all the way throughout the 1 1/16-mile race over a sloppy track. The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro is headed to the $1 million Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 6. The 2015 Eclipse Award winner as champion 2-year old filly has won her races by an average margin of more than five lengths.
“If it doesn’t make an owner smile the way she’s been running, maybe you should try another business. It’s so fun to watch," Porter said. “We always figured that she could handle an off track. We’ve found that most really good horses can handle any kind of surface – today, she didn’t show us anything different. It’s so exciting to see the horse perform time after time unasked. I’m so fortunate to have a horse like this.”
Mor Spirit Second in SA Derby
Exaggerator uncorked an impressive move around the far turn and then drew away to win the Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/4 lengths on April 9. Making his typical grinding run late, Mor Spirit reeled in Uncle Lino in the deep stretch to finish second. He headed to the Kentucky Derby with 84 qualifying points.
Foaled at Chester County's Derry Meeting Farm, Mor Spirit is trained by four-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert.
"He really didn't run his race but the wet track surface really threw the whole race upside down," Baffert said a few days after the race. "We wanted to be near the lead but Gary (jockey Stevens) said everybody left there like their hair was on fire. The pace was just brutal early, so he hung there in the middle and basically just passed tired horses at the end.
“I think it was better than it looked. We survived it and the horse came back great, that's the main thing. It was disappointing, but we'll move on. The winner freaked. No one was going to beat him that day. Our colt is first or second every time, so you need that."