LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- Shortly after 10 a.m. Sunday, outside barn 41 on the Churchill Downs backstretch, a gaggle of media swarmed around trainer Doug O'Neill to get the lowdown on Nyquist, the undefeated 2-year-old male champion who likely will be favored in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
A furlong or so away, outside barn 42, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin sat by himself in a folding chair, having just finished a cellphone conversation. Had things worked out differently in the Florida Derby four weeks ago, it likely would have been McLaughlin at the center of the media scrum.
"If we were undefeated, it'd be a little crazy," McLaughlin said. "But I think I would take the craziness and be undefeated."
Mohaymen was undefeated, winning his first five starts -- including four graded stakes -- before finishing fourth, beaten by 8-1/2 lengths by Nyquist, in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on April 2.
And so the questions McLaughlin will be asked persistently this week will be what went wrong in the Florida Derby and can Mohaymen -- a $2.2 million yearling purchase by Shadwell Stable -- rebound in the 142nd Kentucky Derby?
In reviewing the Florida Derby, McLaughlin said Mohaymen, the 4-5 favorite, was widest of all into the first turn and down the backstretch. He made a move around the far turn to try to challenge Nyquist but was turned aside and flattened out down the stretch.
"No. 1, I think we were on the worst part of the track," McLaughlin said. "No. 2, we traveled 54 feet farther [than Nyquist] on the worst part of the track. No one was going to win from out there."
Another factor, McLaughlin felt, was the heat and humidity in south Florida that afternoon, which might have taken something out of Mohaymen, who did van 45 minutes from the Palm Meadows training center for the race.
"At first, obviously I was very disappointed with the results because, you hate to say it, I didn't think he would ever lose, really," McLaughlin said. "I didn't. Five for five and you just feel like you're not going to lose."
McLaughlin was thankful that Mohaymen came out of the race sound and healthy. Noting that Mohaymen, a son of Tapit, is on the light side weight-wise, McLaughlin shipped the horse to Kentucky early -- April 17 -- to get Mohaymen out of the south Florida heat.
"Trying to put more weight on him and keep weight on him was the point of getting out of there because he would sweat," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said he is tweaking a few things with Mohaymen leading up to the Derby, the most significant change being a switch from traditional shoes to glue-on shoes on both of the colt's front feet.
"We have most of our big horses in glue-on shoes in this day and age; just nice not to have nails in their feet and just a little performance boost, we think," McLaughlin said.
Mohaymen has worked twice at Churchill Downs. On April 20, he drilled a half-mile in 46.80 seconds. On April 29, he went the same distance in 47.40 seconds. The first work had observers ready to jump back on the Mohaymen bandwagon. In the second work, Mohaymen leaped several times going to the pole before leveling off.
"I didn't like the throwing himself around part of it, but he was feeling good and wanted to go," said McLaughlin, who had cautioned exercise rider Miguel Jaime about going too fast.
Overall, McLaughlin has been pleased with Mohaymen's training but believes his demeanor will be his big asset on Derby Day. Though Mohaymen misbehaved in the paddock and at the gate prior to his victory in the Nashua Stakes last November at Aqueduct, McLaughlin said that was a one-time incident.
"Mohaymen is like a pony," McLaughlin said. "His mind is so good that that's going to be a big plus on the day."
McLaughlin remembers bringing Alpha to the Derby in 2012. He said the colt started shaking in the paddock.
"He looked like a popsicle melting in the heat," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin is winless with six horses in five previous Derbies, including a fourth-place finish by Frosted last year. In 2005, McLaughlin came within a half-length of winning the Derby with 71-1 shot Closing Argument, who had been beaten nine lengths when third in the Blue Grass in his previous start.
Still, McLaughlin, a 55-year-old native of Lexington, Ky., still believes Mohaymen is the best horse he's brought to this race.
"This horse is the best chance we ever had on all figures," McLaughlin said. "He's just different, and he's so classy. He does everything right and is very sound and great mentally."
Of the last 25 Kentucky Derby winners, 21 have finished first or second in their previous race before the Derby. The other four came into the Derby off fourth-place finishes in their last prep, including Giacomo (2005) and Thunder Gulch (1995).
When asked what kind of trip he would like to see Mohaymen pull in the Derby under jockey Junior Alvarado, McLaughlin punched up on his iPad a replay of the 1995 Derby, in which Thunder Gulch stalked the pace from fifth while out in the clear.
McLaughlin knows that one of the horses Mohaymen will be stalking is Nyquist, who figures to be on or near the lead in the Derby.
McLaughlin said the Florida Derby represented the "only two bad minutes" of Mohaymen's career. On Saturday, he is hoping Mohaymen can give him the best two minutes of his life.