The field for the Kentucky Derby is set, barring injures, and Southern California has five of the 20 horses currently qualified to make the 20-horse field.
The final pieces fell into place Saturday when Omaha Beach won the $1-million Arkansas Derby and Improbable finished second over a wet track at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
They join Roadster, Game Winner and Gray Magician as horses that will, if healthy, compete on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
Omaha Beach was impressive winning the Arkansas Derby, running a perfect trip, taking the lead on the clubhouse turn and then winning by a length over Improbable, who also ran a strong race. It will be the first time in 15 years that trainer Richard Mandella has been at the Derby.
“He looked like he was well within himself and Mike [Smith] just let him enjoy his job, just stride out and go where he went.” Mandella said. “My first thought was, ‘Jeez, don’t move too quick’ and then I thought, ‘Don’t be second-guessing Mike Smith,’ one of the greatest of all times. … We’d already ran in the slop at home, so that wasn’t much of a concern. He’s a very tractable horse. I don’t think we need to pick a surface.”
Smith recounted the trip this way.
“[It was a] little nerve wracking in the gate because a few of them didn’t want to load, but he handled it all well. He got a little uptight, but then relaxed. He jumped extremely well. There were several horses that wanted the lead. Mr. Mandella has been teaching him in the morning to break off strong and then relax. He did just that. Picked a nice little spot and stayed right there. His cruising speed just takes him up there. I just basically tried to stay out of way. I’m better off letting him than fighting him.”
Southern California has dominated the Kentucky Derby scene recently, winning four of the last four Derbies with Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. California Chrome won the Derby and Preakness and Nyquist won the Derby.
If you go back two more years, I’ll Have Another, a Santa Anita horse, won the Derby and Preakness.
By virtue of winning the Arkansas Derby, Omaha Beach joined Tacitus (Wood Memorial), Verkoma (Blue Grass Stakes), Plus Que Parfait (UAE Derby), Roadster (Santa Anita Derby), By My Standards (Louisiana Derby) and Maximum Security (Florida Derby) as 100-point qualifiers with no chance of getting bumped from the field.
Smith now has to decide who to ride in the Kentucky Derby: Omaha Beach or Roadster.
“It’s a lovely decision to have,” Smith said. “We’re going to go back and see how everyone comes back and go from there. Evaluate the situation. Then my agent will make the decision. That’s why I pay him.”