All spring leading up to the Derby, heavyweights Uncle Mo, the bay challenger, and Tapit, the gray champion, traded blows each weekend, it seemed, with one or the other landing major punches in the runup to the main event. And these weren’t the fluffy nothings like those thrown in a fight between “pastel bros” captured here on Kentucky Oaks day at Churchill, either; Uncle Mo vs. Tapit was the real deal, and anyone following the competition knew something special was taking place because Tapit’s standing as an exceptional stallion was the gauge against which Uncle Mo was being measured. And Uncle Mo was going toe-to-toe.
Entering the Derby, Uncle Mo and Tapit were quite incredibly represented by three runners each — something that hasn’t happened in recent memory — and the feeling in both camps was that this was the year the classic would be theirs. It was terrific drama, because Uncle Mo’s bay representatives were led by undefeated 2-year-old colt Nyquist, the G1 Florida Derby winner; Outwork, the G1 Wood Memorial winner; and Mo Tom, the G3 LeComte Stakes winner and a hard-luck finisher in the G2 Louisiana Derby and G2 Risen Star. Tapit’s gray contingent was led by Creator, winner of the G1 Arkansas Derby and a colt getting good at the right time; Lani, the idiosyncratic Japanese-based winner of the G2 UAE Derby at 1900 meters, or approximately a mile and three-sixteenths; and Mohaymen, who until his loss to Nyquist in the Florida Derby was the pro-tem leader of the 3-year-old division and the co-highest priced yearling of 2014 at $2.2 million.
Standing at Gainesway, Tapit’s rise to the top of North American stallions was reflected in his advertised stud fee of $300,000, by far the highest on the continent. The leading general sire in the U.S. the last two seasons, Tapit’s reputation for getting high-class racehorses was clearly established and if there was a chink in his armor, it was that he probably needed some help on the bottom side of a pedigree to get a classic winner. This was the case with his 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, whose dam was by Pleasant Colony and from the immediate family of Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and from the extended family of A.P. Indy. Creator and Lani certainly fit this profile, and Mohaymen, though not as stoutly bred on the bottom, was certainly all class.
Ashford Stud’s Uncle Mo, one of the most brilliant 2-year-olds of recent years, had started his career as Tapit had by leading all first-crop sires of his class. Ashford clearly knew he had more gas in the tank because they tripled his fee from $25,000 in 2015 to $75,000 in 2016, and this move was justified this spring by the exploits of a plethora of newly turned 3-year-olds in stakes races. But Nyquist, whose backstory is captured here by Frank Mitchell in a column today, remained the marquee horse and Uncle Mo’s main hope for the Derby.
So, the stage was set, and the winner, by TKO, was Uncle Mo, who delivered a haymaker in the form of Nyquist, still undefeated and now the Kentucky Derby winner of 2016.
Nyquist comes from a family that has shortened a number of runners through generations — even those by stamina sires — and his dam is a daughter of Forestry, a fast son of Storm Cat who adds more speed than stamina to a pedigree, so there was quite a bit of doubt about his chances at 10F although none at all about his class. And he showed his class in the Derby, giving his young sire a first-crop Derby winner — the biggest of all prizes — and the cache that goes with it. Uncle Mo, simply, is here to stay at the top.
What Uncle Mo has done to date is greater than that accomplished by Tapit at the same stage, so there’s much to look forward to as these two stallions vie for supremacy in future competitions. It’s likely at this point, too, that Uncle Mo’s stud fee — a bargain to breeders this year — will become commensurate with Tapit’s in 2017. That’s no easy accomplishment, either.