Shadwell Stable's undefeated Mohaymen set the stage for arguably one of the most dramatic prep races in decades when he rolled to a 2 1/4-length victory in the $400,000 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 27 at Gulfstream Park Feb. 27.
The win vaulted the 3-year-old son of Tapit to the top of the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, giving him a total of 71 points toward a place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). But the final stepping stone before the Run for the Roses is the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I), and talk turned to that April 2 contest and a clash with unbeaten West Coast star Nyquist —winner of the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and the 2-year-old champion—minutes after Mohaymen patiently sat mid-pack and easily ran down previously undefeated Zulu for his fifth straight win.
Kiaran McLaughlin, a native of Lexington, Ky. who appears to have the best shot at a Kentucky Derby triumph with Mohaymen, emphasized he remains committed to the Florida path he chose long ago.
"We're here and we're pointing that way, and we're not altering our plan," McLaughlin said.
Rick Nichols, who oversees Mohaymen as the U.S. racing manager for Shadwell Stables, echoed McLaughlin's commitment to the Florida Derby.
"It would be fun. It would be exciting. We would welcome the challenge," he said. "We're arguably the best on the East Coast. He's arguably the best on the West Coast."
Doug O'Neill, Nyquist's trainer, has been equally intent on reaching the Kentucky Derby by way of Florida. He has a million reasons for that. A $1 million bonus is there for the taking if Nyquist can win the Florida Derby. He is eligible for the bonus because he was purchased by Paul Reddam as a 2-year-old at a Fasig-Tipton sale last March. The incentive is being offered for the first time to enhance the appeal of the Flordia Derby compared to other rich prep races.
"I hope they change their minds," McLaughlin said jokingly. "I'm not really looking forward to facing him. He's a very talented horse and so are we. But this is home for us."
Although McLaughlin's primary base is in New York, Mohaymen has benefitted from his time at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, Fla., working steadily and sometimes sensationally there.
"We don't want any changes," McLaughlin said. "He's great mentally. He's not getting hot and bothered. He's training great."
Mohaymen was purchased by Shadwell as a yearling for $2.2 million as the co-sales topper at Keeneland's September sale in 2014. Racing history is filled with expensive flops. Mohaymen clearly has class to accompany regal bloodlines.
When Zulu became unglued as he neared the starting gate for the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth, Mohaymen stood still as a statue beneath jockey Junior Alvarado and patiently waited his turn to enter outside post 6 in a small but select field that featured another undefeated starter, Awesome Banner.
Once the starting gate snapped open, Mohaymen withstood early jostling around the first turn while Awesome Banner and Zulu, both venturing beyond seven furlongs for the first time, displayed their expected early speed, running one-two.
"He settled nice for me," Alvarado said. "By the five-eighths pole, he started to get into a nice rhythm, that gear, and he started pulling on me, asking me for the next step. "
When Alvarado gave Mohaymen his cue, he blew past Zulu and widened his margin with every powerful stride until Alvarado, recognizing the massive challenge that awaits, eased him under the wire. He covered the distance in 1:42.84 on a fast track and returned $2.80 as the 2-5 favorite in a six-horse field.
"Each race he improves even more and proves that he has everything that a rider would want in a horse to point to those big races," Alvarado said. He has been aboard since Mohaymen debuted with a half-length victory last Sept. 19 at Belmont Park before completing his 2-year-old season with successes in the Nashau and Remsen, a pair of grade II contests at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The duo set the stage for a perfect season in Florida with a romp in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 30. They carried on that success in the Fountain of Youth, where Fellowship finished four lengths behind Zulu in third. Awesome Speed, Awesome Banner, and Golden Rays completed the order of finish.
Trainer Todd Pletcher was encouraged by Zulu's performance. The Bernardini colt, in only his third start, was being tested around two turns for the first time in his stakes debut.
"Hopefully it's something to build on and improve on," Pletcher said. "He gave us the impression he wanted more distance and I think he showed he can handle that. We're still working on a few things. He got a little excited in the post parade and a little excited in the starting gate."
Mohaymen was bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farms out of the grade II-winning Dixie Union mare Justwhistledixie. She is back in foal to Tapit, due March 18, and will be bred back to that leading sire on her next cover.