Omaha Beach enters Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with something to prove
Six months ago, Richard Mandella sat next to Dr. Foster Northrop at an impromptu news conference at Churchill Downs. That combination, trainer and veterinarian, is rarely a good sign.
Stoically, Mandella explained why Omaha Beach, the morning-line favorite, would not be running in the Kentucky Derby. A trapped epiglottis, a non-life-threatening throat issue, cost the trainer his best shot at winning the Kentucky Derby in his more than four-decade career.
“It was devastating, to be honest,” Mandella, 68, said at the time. “I have done this for 45 years, so, I have seen this movie and starred in it. … But I had a nice note from [owner/breeder] Arthur Hancock, and he said: ‘Richard, [Charlie] Whittingham was 73 when he won his first one.’ So, who am I to think I should be doing this now?”
Omaha Beach’s projected three-week recovery turned into five months. Various small issues delayed, but never canceled, his return to racing. Omaha Beach will be running Saturday at Santa Anita as the 8-5 favorite in the $1-million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Omaha Beach’s racing career began not with a flash but as a slow grind. He started as a turf horse.
“[Omaha Beach] finally said to me after his last grass race, ‘Boss, you ought to run on the grass, not me,’” Mandella likes to say. The horse’s fourth race was on the dirt and he finished second by a half-length.
Ten years have passed since Zenyatta’s amazing victory at the Breeders’ Cup, but the memories remain as vivid as ever for the fans who witnessed it.
Then something clicked, and on Feb. 2 he won a maiden race by nine lengths. Expectations were high and he was entered in the Rebel Stakes, which had an overcrowded field and was split into two divisions because Santa Anita had closed over a rash of horse deaths. Otherwise, he would have run in the San Felipe Stakes, which was never run this year.
He won the Rebel by a nose over Game Winner, the 2-year-old Eclipse Award champion who at the time was the presumptive Kentucky Derby favorite. About a month later, Omaha Beach won the Arkansas Derby by a length, beating Improbable and Country House, the horse that would be awarded the Kentucky Derby win after the disqualification of Maximum Security.
Then it was on to Kentucky, where cheers became tears for his connections when the throat problem was detected. Still, Mandella has no regrets about how the year turned out.
“It’s been a great year,” Mandella said Tuesday after watching Omaha Beach‘s final workout before Saturday’s race. “As a horse trainer, you learn to live with disappointments. We have plenty of practice at that.
“But you don’t get many that win the Arkansas Derby and then come back and win the Santa Anita Sprint. And the Rebel. You erase the things that didn’t happen and you live on what did happen.”
Omaha Beach’s most impressive performance might have been that win in the six-furlong Sprint Championship after a six-month absence from racing. He’s not a sprinter.
“He’s a throwback to those classic horses,” jockey Mike Smith said after the win. “He can do anything. Three-quarters [of a mile] to a mile-and-a-quarter. He’s extremely fast and he’s got tremendous stamina. When you need him to be quick, he is. He can do it all.”
It left Mandella with a dilemma: For the Breeders’ Cup, should Omaha Beach be entered in the Cup Sprint, Dirt Mile or Classic?
“I was hung up between short and long, so I went in the middle,” Mandella said.
Mandella says he feels good about Omaha Beach’s prospects on Saturday.
“He’s such a smart horse,” Mandella said. “You’ve seen the works he’s been doing. He just does it so nice. … Whatever he does won’t surprise me because he’s that good.”
After the Breeders’ Cup, Mandella has targeted Omaha Beach for the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita, a seven-furlong race on Dec. 26, to be followed by the 1 1/8-mile, $9-million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park.
Experts are concerned the use of bisphosphonates in thoroughbreds will lead to more breakdowns and serious injuries — and the drugs can’t be traced.
“He’s set to go to stud at Spendthrift, and I know the agreement reads you can run him in the Pegasus at the end of January,” Mandella said. “And then they could take him straight to Spendthrift and go to stud. … We still get to keep him a little bit. We’ll see what happens.”
A win in the Dirt Mile and the Malibu Stakes could put Omaha Beach in the picture for the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old horse of the year. With a disputed Kentucky Derby and no real standout the rest of the year, he could be the favorite with a couple of wins. Voting for the award concludes a few days after the Malibu.
“Let’s not talk about that,” Mandella said.
He may not want to talk about it, but if Saturday goes well, everyone else will be.
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