Opinion: Kentucky Derby wide-open race after Omaha Beach defection

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — If you want to know what’s really happening with a horse leading up to a big race, the trainer is usually the worst person to ask. It doesn’t matter if a horse hates the track, is full of physical ailments or isn’t showing much energy in the mornings, horse racing is always a game of ice cream and rainbows — at least until the gates open. 

But Hall of Famer Richard Mandella is the rare creature of the backstretch who never boasts or overplays his hand. When he indicates his horse is sitting on a big race, that’s typically your cue to run to the betting windows. 

“If (Mandella) really likes a horse, they’re really good,” two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert said Tuesday when Mandella-trained Omaha Beach was anointed the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby. “If he says he couldn’t be doing better, I don’t like to hear stuff like that.”

Indeed, it had been difficult for Mandella to suppress his confidence in the way Omaha Beach had trained this week, suggesting he was finally on the verge of winning the one big race that had eluded him. 

And then, just like that, it was all over Wednesday afternoon.

“He coughed a few times galloping yesterday, which made us think we better take a look,” said Mandella, who acknowledged that Omaha Beach had been treated for a sore throat more than a week ago but he thought they were in the clear based on how quickly it went away. “You couldn’t have asked a horse to train or look any better this whole period we’ve been here. If you didn’t look up his nose with a scope you wouldn’t know anything is wrong.”

But something was wrong with Omaha Beach. An entrapped epiglottis, to be specific, which means that some swollen tissue in the throat would limit his breathing passages by about a third. It’s not a major injury — a quick surgery Thursday will take care of the problem — but the horse will be out of training for two or three weeks. That means no Kentucky Derby, no Triple Crown and back to California to regroup. 

Omaha Beach could still come back and win lots of races and big-money prizes this summer, perhaps even prove himself as the best 3-year-old in this crop. But there’s only one Kentucky Derby, and Mandella acknowledged that going from the favorite to out of it completely was probably the biggest disappointment of his career. 

“It’s devastating,” Mandella said. “It’s because the Derby is what it is, and this horse, if you’d been around the barn you can see how special he is. It just seemed like everything was so in line. I had a thought, is this too perfect? Because nothing is that perfect, and we found out what wasn’t.”

Of course, that’s exactly what makes the Derby so compelling year after year. Most of the people watching Saturday will only really pay attention to the two minutes it takes to get around the track and try to figure out whether the horse they bet on might earn them a little money. 

But for the people involved, it’s the culmination of a journey months in the making where everything can seem like it’s going right until something as simple as a cough 72 hours before the race can crush dreams for someone like Mandella or owner Rick Porter, who have tasted success in every race that matters but this one. 

Trainer Richard Mandella dries the nose of Omaha Beach after workouts at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. (Photo: Jamie Rhodes, USA TODAY Sports)

“In our business it’s the most difficult problem you’ll deal with,” said two-time Derby winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who had to scratch Uncle Mo due to illness in 2011 and consensus Derby favorite Eskendereya with a right leg injury in 2010. “These horses get one chance at it. It’s not like a Breeders’ Cup race or something like that where you get another try next year.

“I think from a trainers’ perspective, at least with Uncle Mo, I felt like I let (owner Mike Repole) down and the horse down so those are the things that are most disappointing. But at the end of the day, you have to put the horse’s health first.”

Of course, Omaha Beach’s defection undoubtedly changes the complexion of the race. Not only was he a relatively strong favorite based on his performances in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby this spring, he was expected to press the pace if not be on the lead after the first half-mile. 

That means the entire strategy of the race changes for horses with early speed, and perhaps alters the thinking of those who were counting on a fast pace setting things up for the closers. 

“It’s probably as much as one single defection can impact a race,” Pletcher said. 

Adding to the uncertainty is a weather forecast calling for rain on Saturday. Omaha Beach won the Arkansas Derby on an off-track, while some of the others who won the big prep races like Vakoma, Tacitus and Roadster as well as new morning-line favorite Game Winner don’t have any experience in the slop. 

A race that already was shaping up as fairly even among the second-tier contenders now seems like it’s completely wide open. 

“I keep looking at the (speed figures), and they all run the same,” Baffert said. “I’ve got three nice horses, but I think it’s still a wide-open race. There’s 10 horses here within a length of each other. It’s whoever gets the trip.”

Baffert had spent most of the week trying to stay under the radar, happy to let his good friend Mandella feel all the pressure. Though Baffert certainly felt like he had a chance to win, he was the first to admit this wasn’t like coming here last year with Justify or in 2015 with American Pharoah, horses who had that “it” factor even before they became Triple Crown winners. 

This time, there were question marks. Has Game Winner, who went 4-for-4 as a 2-year-old, regressed at age 3 with two narrow losses? Was Improbable, who was soundly defeated by Omaha Beach in Arkansas, really good enough to turn the tables in Kentucky? And how much stock should we put in Mike Smith jumping off Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster to ride Omaha Beach in this race?

Now, Baffert suddenly inherits the favorite’s role, largely because there’s no one else who can fill it. It will only make him more anxious, since he knows as well as anyone how fragile this stuff can be. 

“(Mandella) was so excited about this horse and it’s a super gut punch,” said Baffert, who has won the Derby five times. “That’s the thing about racing. That’s why I’m always on pins and needles. Everybody says, you don’t seem (nervous) but I know things can go wrong so every day we’re just waiting it out until I get the saddle on that horse and put the rider on. That’s the only time I can relax.”

Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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