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Florida Derby match-up a bonus for horse racing fans

Now that Mohaymen has shattered the illusion that there is a 3-year-old in the East who can do anything about him, it has come time to spend the next month in fervid anticipation of his first true test against divisional champ Nyquist in the Florida Derby.

Sure, these next four weeks will be a challenge to fill with all things Florida Derby. Never fear, though. Racing's got people with typewriters and Twitter accounts who can chew on one idea like it's boardwalk taffy, and when it comes to Mohaymen vs. Nyquist, there is plenty to go around. For instance:

Mohaymen, eh, another late-winter flash in the pre-Derby pan. Haven't we seen this movie before?

There seems to be some confusion, a misleading mash-up of white bridles and former Lukas grads who train for some of the world's most famous stables.

Todd Pletcher is the one who usually wins all the Derby preps, as he has in recent years with colts like Materiality, Constitution, Carpe Diem, Itsaknockout, Verrazano, Revolutionary, Vinceremos, Gemologist, Danza, and Overanalyze. Pletcher has run 43 horses in the Kentucky Derby, winning once, and that was even a surprise to Super Saver.

Kiaran McLaughlin, on the other hand, is handling Mohaymen in the same methodical fashion as he did such stars as Invasor, Frosted, It's Tricky, Henny Hughes, Daahar, Lahudood, and Questing. Mohaymen is McLaughlin's best 3-year-old by a pole, and if he has a Derby fallback position, it has not become apparent. He has run six horses in the Derby, including Closing Argument, who was 71-1 in 2005 and beaten half a length by Giacomo. McLaughlin touted him to anyone who would listen.

Two starts? Why not one?

Just like Mohaymen, Nyquist has run five times and won five times. The symmetry alone makes their confrontation compelling. But Mohaymen has run two middle-distance races already this year, while Nyquist has had exactly one race in five months, and that was a seven-furlong stakes race run on a Monday. Okay, so it was a holiday Monday.

Horses in recent years have proven that they can win the Derby off two 3-year-old starts. But the Florida Derby will be Nyquist's first start around two turns in half a year. As a public service, and to give Doug O'Neill some practice in answering a question that will beat him like a club over the coming weeks, the trainer was asked, "Just one start before the Derby over a distance of ground? So, what's wrong with your horse?"

"The little bit we learned from the I'll Have Another experience was how much foundation you need going into the Triple Crown and how tough those three races are," said O'Neill, who took I'll Have Another to the brink of the 2012 Triple Crown until the colt was injured before the Belmont. "You've got to be foundation strong and afternoon fresh."

Still, it can be just as hard on a horse to keep pounding away in the morning without the release of competition.

"One of his many assets is that he's a classy horse you don't need to run every three weeks to keep him from running through the walls," O'Neill said. "And because winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, we don't have to go chasing points, which sometimes might not be in the best interests of the horse."

And about that Florida Derby bonus: Why are such bonuses still a thing?

Nyquist will be running in the $1 million Florida Derby on April 2 instead of at home in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 9. O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam insist that their decision is primarily based on the five weeks between the Florida race and the Kentucky Derby. Not taking the rest of us for idiots, they add that the $1 million winner's bonus on the table at Gulfstream for a Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old sales grad like Nyquist makes the choice a no-brainer.

Let us put aside for a moment the idea that in entering into the bonus arrangement with the sales company, The Stronach Group effectively cuts the promotional legs from under one of its tracks in favor of another. I suppose such a business strategy could work, though hopefully not for long.

One thing is certain -- bonus schemes habitually cause more trouble than they are worth. Racing history is replete with samples.

The Angel Cordero squabble with the Spend a Buck camp when he couldn't ride the colt in the 1985 Jersey Derby. The foot-dragging by Risen Star's people over Eddie Delahoussaye's cut of a 1988 Triple Crown bonus. The ugly way Unbridled won his 1990 Triple Crown bonus by barely showing up in the Belmont Stakes. The day a 1994 turf racing bonus was taken off the table because of a single late scratch at Pimlico. The way Bob Lewis had to give Visa a public scolding for its plan to include Triple Crown purse money in a potential 1997 bonus payout. The sight of the hopeless longshot Luthier Fever trotting home more than 40 lengths behind victorious Dare and Go in the 1996 Pacific Classic, raking in a $500,000 "participation" bonus.

If the Nyquist people are to be believed, they would be heading to face Mohaymen with or without the million on top of the purse. And yet …

"I'd be lying if it wasn't part of it," O'Neill said. "But to get it, you've got to win. And that's the point of running, whether there's a bonus or not."