When you think about a Santa Anita-based trainer in the hall of fame who has one of the top horses for the Kentucky Derby there’s only one place your mind can go: Bob Baffert.
But this year, that description has company as Richard Mandella will find out how good Omaha Beach is when he runs Saturday in the $1 million Arkansas Derby. He’s won his last two races, including a nose win over the Baffert-trained Eclipse Award recipient Game Winner, who qualified for the Kentucky Derby with a second in the Santa Anita Derby.
Omaha Beach is the second favorite at 2-1, while Improbable, another Baffert horse, is 8-5.
Omaha Beach came to the Derby trail a little late as Mandella thought he was a grass horse because of his breeding.
“When he was getting ready for his first start, he was a good workhorse but not a show off,” Mandella said. “And we were just [figuring] War Front had been so good on the turf, I just thought it might be a good way to start. And he ran well. So, I tried it again and he ran well. So, I tried it again. If you beat me in the head enough times, I finally get it.”
Omaha Beach ran third, second, second before Mandella moved him to the dirt.
“Well, he finally said to me after his last grass race, ‘Boss, you ought to run on the grass, not me,’” Mandella said.
Mandella has nine Breeders’ Cup wins but never a win in the Triple Crown series. The last time he ran in the Kentucky Derby was 15 years ago with Action This Day (sixth) and Minister Eric (16th).
“Well the 15 years is significant,” Mandella said. “That’s the time they gave me when they told me the last time I came don’t come back again for 15 years. So, the time’s up and I’m back.”
Omaha Beach’s win in the split-division Rebel Stakes was Game Winner’s first career loss. Omaha Beach went to the lead and held on as Game Winner started making up ground at the end.
“I was fully confident we’re going to win that race,” Mandella said. “I am just kidding. It scared me to death at the eighth pole when it looked like Game Winner was the dominant horse. And then my horse just looked at him and dug back and beat him, so I couldn’t have been more proud.”
This is the last weekend that horses can qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby. Usually, you can make the race with points in the mid-30s but this year will be a record high of at least 40. Omaha Beach has 37.5 points and Improbable has 25. The winner of the Arkansas Derby gets 100 points, followed by 40, 20 and 10.
There is also a lesser points race at Keeneland, the $200,000 Lexington Stakes, worth 20-8-4-2. Sueno, for trainer Keith Desormeaux, has 28 points and needs a win to make the Derby. Golden Gate Fields-based Anothertwistafate has 30 points after winning El Camino Real Derby and is trying to pick up some qualifying points in the Lexington.
Where are all the horses?
Santa Anita has two of the thinnest cards in recent memory on Saturday and Sunday after more than 100 horses have been shipped out for a variety of reasons. The horse population that feeds Santa Anita, including San Luis Rey Downs and Los Alamitos, is usually around 2,500. No verified figures were available.
Saturday’s card has 59 starters over nine races, but seven of the races have only six starters, making for an average 6.5 starters a race. On Sunday, there are 49 starters over eight races, with five races with only five starters (6.1 average). Comparing that to last year, in the week following the Santa Anita Derby, the declines are stark.
In 2018, on Saturday there were 11 races with 84 starters (7.6 average). And on Sunday, nine races with 70 starters (7.8 average).
Given all the mitigating factors, perhaps a more telling statistic is the number of horses that have had timed workouts at Santa Anita. In 2018, 770 horses worked over the main dirt track and training track in the week following Santa Anita Derby. This year, only 589 horses worked, a decline of 23.5%.
However, for March the number of workers was essentially flat, 5,514 to 5,548, according to Equibase. This would indicate Keeneland, which started in April, is a factor.
“I think there are a variety of factors for the decline,” said Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. “Keeneland [and Oaklawn have] become more of a destination for our horses increasingly over recent years because of their high purse structure. And the interruption we had in March, created uncertainty and no doubt made it a bigger factor.”
Santa Anita was only scheduled to run three days this and next week. The track also closed the downhill turf course to sprinters after the death of Arms Runner on that course on March 31. The condition book listed three races at 6½ furlongs down the hill on both Saturday and Sunday.
“Suspension of the hillside races is a major factor because those races always filled really well,” Balch said. “The condition book is also a factor. There was no way they could have anticipated all of this.”
Balch doesn’t believe the new medication rules played a role in horses leaving, although he couldn’t be certain.
“The new medication rules in most respects are very similar to what we had in place before,” Balch said.
One positive for Santa Anita is that the number of 2-year-olds that have started to work at the track in March is up from 101 to 139, according to Equibase.
Track officials will be closely watching the entry box as well as every other aspect of their business. If field sizes remain small and races become difficult to fill, the track may have no other option than to look at a three-day race week.