Florida Derby hard at the top, soft underneath

The showdown between Nyquist and Mohaymen in Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby is a rare treat. It is a throwback to the days when top classics contenders actually raced against one another before the Kentucky Derby instead of being kept apart until the main event through a bloated schedule of inflated Derby prep races. Nyquist and Mohaymen ran 1-2 in the Eclipse Award balloting for champion 2-year-old male and have been favored in every round of Derby Futures betting. Both are undefeated and probably could have stayed that way until the Derby if they were not meeting one race earlier.

While they probably could have divided and conquered had they been kept apart, the Florida Derby was the best spot for each colt, for different reasons. Nyquist is eligible for a $1 million payout on top of the purse through a bonus scheme linking the race to the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of 2-year-olds, where he was purchased for $400,000 last March. In Mohaymen's case, he was such a dominant winner of Gulfstream's first two Derby preps, the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, that it made sense to keep him there, where he has something of a home-court advantage.

Conversely, it's a race that makes no sense for any other serious classics contender in need of points to qualify for the Derby field. The Florida Derby is a 170-point race, but why run against Nyquist and Mohaymen when the upcoming Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial offer the same points without having to face the nation's top two 3-year-olds?

A week ago, it looked as if the two might face just two or three rivals who would have to be heavily recruited to start against them. So, it was a shock when entries were taken Wednesday that the race drew a field of 10, more than six of the seven other stakes on the Saturday card. Someone has to fill out the order of finish, and there are prizes of $100,000 for third, $50,000 for fourth, $30,000 for fifth, and $10,000 for sixth through 10th.

It is unclear whether some of the surprise entries are due to delusional owners or arm-twisting from the racing office; most likely, it's a combination of the two. Either way, the credentials of some of the entrants are so weak that it is patently absurd that they are even running in a Grade 1 race.

Sawyers Mickey is an 0-for-7 maiden with a top Beyer Speed Figure of 66 in a race where Nyquist's and Moyhaymen's last starts earned respective figures of 101 and 95. Chovanes comes out of a maiden-claiming win. Fashionable Freddy has been trounced in three allowance races at the meet. Worst of all is Copingaway, a 1-for-14 claimer from a trainer who is 0 for 48 at the meeting, running back just a week after a 10-length drubbing in starter-allowance company. His five dirt races have earned Beyers ranging from 31 to 58.

This is getting into the territory previously reserved for horses such as Ricks Natural Star, the $3,500 claimer who was entered in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Turf, where he was eased at 55-1. That price would be a massive underlay on Copingaway.

A five- or six-horse Florida Derby would have been a far more dignified race than this odd assembly of kings and paupers, but the current calculus of racing offices is quantity over quality, handle over sport, warm bodies over deserving ones, and perpetual terror at the prospect of a short field.

It is the same thinking that ends up disrespecting important stakes races with short fields by running them early on the program to minimize any possible handle loss. Gulfstream could easily have had an all-graded-stakes Rainbow 6 but instead interrupted the sequence with a 12-horse maiden race because the Skip Away, Gulfstream Oaks, and Appleton drew fields of "only" six, seven, and eight.

Nyquist vs. Mohaymen is the showdown of the year to date and an unusual pre-Derby gift to the game. Here's hoping that some of their unworthy opposition stays out of the way.