People around the backstretch of Churchill Downs come Kentucky Derby week have grown accustomed to their Southern California trainers showing up with a bag full of quips, miles of positivity and homespun stories.
Bob Baffert won here in the last few years with Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. Doug O’Neill brought I’ll Have Another and Nyquist to victory. And everyone’s surrogate granddad, Art Sherman, introduced the world to California Chrome.
But this year, for the first time in 15 years, Richard Mandella, 68, has returned to the sport’s Holy Grail with no fancy dialogue, just an impish grin that belies a hidden sense of humor, and a great horse, Omaha Beach.
Mandella usually doesn’t speak in more than a well-crafted sentence.
Does your horse have the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles?
“Well, they can all get a mile and a quarter, it’s just a matter of time,” Mandella said.
What kind of trip does he need to win the Derby?
Any horses that scare you in this year’s Derby?
“I’ve watched them out there at that break [during exercise and workouts] and I didn’t see one I didn’t like,” he said.
The horse that everyone likes is his. Omaha Beach is the 4-1 morning-line favorite to win the 145th running of the Derby. His journey to this race was anything but conventional.
He ran his first three races on the grass at Del Mar and Santa Anita, with two seconds and a third. His sire was War Front, who was a grass horse.
“[Omaha Beach] finally said to me after his last grass race, ‘Boss, you ought to run on the grass, not me,’” Mandella said.
He ran his next race on the dirt at Santa Anita, finishing second after stumbling out of the gate. Finally, on Feb. 2 he won a seven-furlong race at Santa Anita by nine lengths.
The colt developed a quarter crack and in order to give him more time to heal, Mandella decided to send him to Arkansas for the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby as his final races before the Kentucky Derby. As it turned out, the penultimate Southern California prep, the San Felipe, was canceled when the track was closed to investigate the spike in horse deaths.
Rick Porter, who owns the colt under the name Fox Hill Farms, said the breakdowns were not a factor in moving his horse out of state.
“I wasn’t concerned about it at all,” Porter said. “[Mandella] thinks there’s no question the track had a problem, but he didn’t train when the track wasn’t good enough to train on. He felt a lot of the breakdowns were avoidable if they didn’t take the horses to the track all the time when they had so much rain.”
Omaha Beach went on to win a division of the newly reconfigured Rebel Stakes, beating Game Winner by a nose and then he beat Improbable by a length in the Arkansas Derby. Jockey Mike Smith had to make a choice between Omaha Beach and Roadster, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. He chose Omaha Beach.
“[Omaha Beach is] just gifted with so much ability and a very sweet and kind temperament,” Mandella said. “It took him a few races to become a man. Racing did him some good and brought out the best in him.”
Mandella has had six previous starts in the Kentucky Derby, the last coming in 2004 when he had both Action This Day (sixth) and Minister Eric (16th) in the race.
This is Porter’s fifth Derby starter. He’s finished second twice, with Hard Spin and Eight Belles, who broke down after the finish and was euthanized in 2008. She was the only horse to ever die as the result of running in the Kentucky Derby.
Winning the Derby would mean a lot to both Mandella and Porter. Ask Mandella, and you get the understated answer.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, just like any other horse person,” Mandella said. “We’ll see how things unfold. They only get one chance to run in the Derby, one day of their 3-year-old year career, so it’s got to come together that day or it doesn’t work. We’re hoping it’s coming together. So far so good.”
Porter gives you an answer that possibly cuts beneath Mandella’s state of cautiousness.
“He wants this bad, believe me,” Porter said. “He just wants to prove that he can win the Kentucky Derby because of his track record. He’s done just about everything else in horse racing and he wants it as much as anybody could ever want anything.”