Omaha Beach’s Kentucky Derby Defection Opens Door for Others

Omaha Beach (right forefront) edges Game Winner in the second division of the Rebel Stakes (photo via Oaklawn Park).

Omaha Beach (right forefront) edges Game Winner in the second division of the Rebel Stakes (photo via Oaklawn Park).

The 2019 Kentucky Derby, touted as “wide open,” just got a lot more wide open with the minor deformation of favorite Omaha Beach’s epiglottis requiring surgery. The scratch of the favorite was heartbreaking for trainer Richard Mandella and his stable, long a fixture of the circuit and “overdue” the Derby win that has thus far eluded him, according to trackside chatter.

It was as disheartening for Omaha Beach’s owner Rick Porter, and for jockey Mike Smith. Hall-of-Famer ”Big Money” Mike has five other rides on Saturday, but for his part, Mandella is heading home to California, but not before making the announcement late Wednesday, three days before the race, with his customary grace.

”It’s been a devastating thing,” the beloved trainer said, ”but we have to do what’s right for the horse. It’s such a disappointment, but we’ll fight again. We won’t be out a long time.”

Nevertheless, the surgery will take the promising bay colt firmly out for the coming weeks of what looked to be his one great shot at a stellar Triple Crown season. The operation, scheduled in Kentucky over the upcoming days, will correct the rare condition — a non-life-threatening upper-bronchial problem called an entrapped epiglottis, which is a fusion of some membranes with the epiglottis that causes breathing difficulties by allowing the epiglottis to cover the windpipe more than it should.

The resultant lack of oxygen can lead to lethargy and a lack of willingness to exercise, symptoms that didn’t manifest themselves or didn’t seem to matter in this Thoroughbred’s case, a testament to the enormous athleticism, the brawn and the heart of Omaha Beach. He had been racing and training well on his relentless march to the Derby and had not, to put it mildly, presented any lethargy to his trainer, his jockeys, or to his competition.

Instead, Omaha Beach turned up with a cough after his workout on Wednesday, a symptom of the condition usually found in horses that don’t race. With his characteristic abundance of care, Mandella felt it was worth checking out. The history-making scratch and the scheduling of surgery was the result.

Adding quite a lot to the yet-unwritten history of the 145th running of the Derby, and to the sporting irony of this unfortunate scratch, is the fact that the diagnosis came just a day after Omaha Beach had drawn an ideal post position, No.12, just to the outside of the horses in the scrum for the run to the first turn and ideal for him and his running style.

Now, with that huge athletic void in the race, everybody from post position 13 to 20 slides over a notch, and  reserve invitee Bodeexpress slips into the 20-hole. Suffice it to say that Bodeexpress, despite his notable sire in Bodemeister, won’t be quite the factor threatening Game Winner, Roadster or Improbable that Omaha Beach would have been.

That doesn’t mean that the 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby will have an asterisk beside it, but it does mean that the (former) second-, third- and fourth-favorites — Game Winner, Roadster, and Improbable — might, on the one hand, have an easier time of it making some money, but they will also face a dauntingly tight race among themselves. The enormous absence of Omaha Beach from the field also punches up the responsibility, if we can call it that, for the second-tier favorites — Tacitus, Maximum Security, Code of Honor, and Win Win Win — to hit the board, or at least to frustrate one or two of the top three.

Tacitus and Maximum Security, at any rate, seem like perfect exotic-makers — or exotic-destroyers — depending on how you have or haven’t played them. Perhaps that was true before Omaha Beach made his untimely exit, but it’s truer than that now.

Omaha Beach’s scratch does help five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert’s chances of adding a sixth Derby laurel to his already-mind-boggling half-dozen. Put a different way, Baffert, always a terrifying trainer to have opposing you in a race, now has the triumvirate of terror-makers for the Derby — Game Winner, now at 9/2 on the morning line, Roadster, and Improbable, who have both come down to 5/1. The ever-cool, ever-diplomatic, ever-in-demand Californian will have no difficulty managing his three different sets of expectant owners, but the weekend will still be a fair dance for him, five Derbies to his credit or no.


Bob Baffert

That noted, it’s not the Hall of Fame trainer who’s running on Saturday; rather, his athletes are, and what we don’t know about them, collectively and individually, turns out to be rather a lot. Omaha Beach’s commanding Arkansas Derby win (in the mud) left little doubt that he didn’t mind rain, or a sloppy track, much at all. Since the soaking of the Churchill Downs track will only increase from now until Saturday, players can look forward to yet another variable: mainly, how the Baffert horses will like the rain and its after-effects.

And every bit of that — the one-two punch of the weather, and Omaha Beach’s sudden scratch scrambling the constellations of both the favorites and the middle of the field – inevitably heaves the high-odds rear of the field into the mix in a new way, too. Basically, since everybody gets kicked up a notch, the situation increases the threat and reach of the possible ticket-wreckers.

Vekoma is arguably at the top of the list as a horse that could spoil a bunch of tickets. He has quite a bit of company at his level. Put another way, it’s a horse race, and it’s the Derby, so anything can happen, but Vekoma, Tax, War of Will and, possibly, By My Standards and Country House would form a sort of reasonable spoiler-mezzanine between the middle tier and the outright long shots such as Haikal, Long Range Toddy, Master Fencer, and Gray Magician.

The 145th Kentucky Derby will have its narrative and, in it, Omaha Beach’s scratch will leave racing fans plenty of head-scratching, pocket-scraping fun coming up with plays to match what happens on Churchill Downs’ soon-to-be super-soggy track without him.

Guy Martin
Guy Martin began his writing career in military school in the South, where he and some of his dormmates started a mimeographed broadside called the “Trusty Tribunal.” During the same time period, he (accidentally) learned German, then studied in Berlin, which drove him to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He still spends much of his time in Berlin and, in fact, is there now, working on a book for Alfred A. Knopf Publishers about the Cold War in East Berlin.

Guy has reported from London, Warsaw, Prague, Istanbul, Moscow, Hong Kong, Lima, Manila, Beirut, Tel Aviv, St. Moritz, Granada, Mindanao and from his native South for Esquire, Town and Country, Garden and Gun, Conde Nast Traveler, Men’s Journal, Departures, The New Yorker, and a host of other magazines in the United States and abroad.

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