Florida Derby offers prelim as main event

That shiver of excitement being felt across the racing landscape can be blamed on the showdown Saturday between the marquee 3-year-olds Nyquist and Mohaymen in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

This is not how it is supposed to work. Top 3-year-olds are supposed to stay in their little corners of the Triple Crown universe until the curtain goes up for the Kentucky Derby. Suspense must be maintained, gratification delayed. Why give away the plot in the first reel when the payoff deserves a full house and a worldwide audience?

The exciting 1969 Derby could have been anticlimactic had the West's Majestic Prince used the Blue Grass Stakes against the East's Arts and Letters for a final prep instead of the Stepping Stone. The Prince might have won the Derby anyway, but he might not have been unbeaten.

After the 1977 season as 2-year-olds, their rivalry was well established. Thank goodness, though, that Alydar stuck to his Eastern preps in early 1978 while Affirmed mopped up in the West. The Derby was the perfect setting for Affirmed to remind the game who was boss.

But where did it say that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer had to wait until Derby Day in 1989 for their first confrontation, when either one could have gotten on a plane in March or April to put the Triple Crown on an early boil?

These days, with million-dollar Triple Crown preps scattered all over the map, the chances are slim for the early confluence of a reigning divisional champion based in California, like Nyquist, and the consensus No. 1 contender in the East, like Mohaymen, even though the million-dollar bonus at stake from the Fasig-Tipton sales company certainly helped throw them together. There have been other Californians pave the way to Gulfstream, but not many.

Snow Chief began 1986 with stakes wins at Santa Anita and Bay Meadows, then won the Florida Derby as the solid choice before returning to California to win the Santa Anita Derby. He was up the track as the Kentucky Derby favorite but bounced back to easily win the Preakness.

In 1983, Jerry Fanning sent the speedy Croeso to Gulfstream for the Florida Derby to stay out of the way of his flashy stablemate, Desert Wine, who was running the same day in the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. They both won, although Croeso, at 85-1, stole the show.

In 1963, the undefeated Candy Spots survived a first-turn pileup in the Santa Anita Derby on March 2, romped in the Florida Derby on March 30, then finished third in the Kentucky Derby before winning the Preakness.

In 1954, Correlation became the first Thoroughbred to fly from California to Miami for the Florida Derby, arriving early enough to finish third in a seven-furlong prep for the big one. One week later, Correlation and Bill Shoemaker defeated the favored Goyamo and Eddie Arcaro to win the Florida Derby's $100,000 top prize. Trainer Noble Threewitt always said the money was nice but insisted he was just as impressed when Arthur Godfrey presented the winner's trophy. Yes, that was once a big deal.

In a best-case scenario, a hard-fought Mohaymen vs. Nyquist battle could be the start of something big, perhaps even a rivalry echoing the early months of 1961, when Carry Back and Crozier put on quite a show.

Crozier had the speed, but Carry Back was a relentless closer, and it was Carry Back who edged Crozier by a head in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah that winter. Bill Hartack was aboard Crozier for the Florida Derby, in which he did everything but jump off and paddle through the sloppy Gulfstream stretch, but Johnny Sellers avoided Crozier's late swerve to get Carry Back home by a head. They were at it again in the Kentucky Derby, where Crozier set sail for the wire and Carry Back caught him to win by three-quarters of a length.

Barring an ongoing rivalry, the Big Two on Saturday can at least put on a good show. Besides Carry Back and Crozier, there have been some real Florida Derby nail-biters, including the 1988 version, where Brian's Time, at 32-1, stunned 2-year-old champion Forty Niner, and the 1995 running, where Mike Smith and Thunder Gulch won a thriller over Jerry Bailey and Suave Prospect. Bailey consoled himself by winning seven of the other races on the card.

"I'm kind of a wiseguy, as you know," Bailey said this week as he prepared for his job as an NBC Sports analyst, beginning with the April 9 Santa Anita Derby. "Stepping on the scales right after the Florida Derby, I looked at Victor Sanchez, the clerk of scales, and said, 'Man, I just can't get lucky.'"

In fact, the jock got all kinds of lucky in the Derby that day. Down the backstretch, he was drafting behind his pacesetting stablemate, Star Standard, who politely opened the rail and allowed Bailey to shoot through at the quarter pole and steal a march on Thunder Gulch. The two came together inside the eighth pole, nothing between them, and raced as one to the wire. The margin was a bob of Thunder Gulch's nose.

"Any time your horse gives you that much, win or lose, you've got to be proud of him," Bailey said."Little did I know then I was fighting the Kentucky Derby winner."

The presence of Nyquist and Mohaymen guarantees that this Florida Derby will not be lightly won. Neither colt will race again before the Kentucky Derby.

"If I was on a really talented horse who had been beating up on his competition, I wanted him to have been in at least one real fight before the Derby," Bailey said. "But I never wanted it to be the last race before the Derby.

"And yet horses are so spread out now it's very hard for a 3-year-old to be tested in a real dogfight now and have it not be the race before the Kentucky Derby," Bailey added. "That's why this Florida Derby is so interesting. I'm not a believer that Nyquist is a true mile-and-a-quarter horse. But I think he's going to be the one who will stand a hard-fought race more than Mohaymen."