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“A Tough Pill to Swallow”


After Scratch Of Omaha Beach, Trainer Mandella And Owner Rick Porter Put Horse’s Welfare First; Baffert, Other Trainers React

By Augusta Hosmer

Omaha Beach. LATT Photo

“I think I might be allergic to the Derby,” Omaha Beach’s trainer, Richard Mandella, said at Churchill Downs Thursday morning.

Racing fans are still reeling at the announcement on Wednesday afternoon that Rebel Stakes (GII) and Arkansas Derby (GI) winner Omaha Beach, who was labeled the 4-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (GI), will be scratched from Saturday’s race. The colt’s connections, which includes owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm, revealed that the son of War Front would not run in the Derby due to an entrapped epiglottis, a condition which was causing breathing difficulties and coughing after the colt’s morning gallop. Though it is a simple condition to fix and Omaha Beach is expected to fully recover without further complications, the treatment requires a minor surgical procedure with a two- to three-week recovery time. Mandella confirms the horse will be back at full training following the break.

The Hall of Fame conditioner hadn’t had a Derby starter in 15 years and this year he stormed Lousiville with a talented colt named for the code name for one of the five sectors of the Allied Invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, during World War II.

“It’s a very common ailment. No big deal. It’s treatable,” Mandella said. “It just came at a bad time. If it had happened three weeks ago, we would have been fine. Alysheba had this procedure a month before the Derby. He won the Derby and several races after. I don’t have that option.”

Omaha Beach was sent for treatment at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, KY shortly after training hours were over on Thursday morning. His departure from Churchill Downs was not at all what any of his connections had imagined for this talented colt.

Omaha Beach galloping at Churchill Downs. Photo: Jordan Thomson

“I told somebody in front of his stall, this is a tough pill to swallow,” Mandella said. “Of course, the horse goes, ‘You think it’s tough for you? I got a sore throat.’”

Many of the connections for the remaining Derby runners were also stunned and expressed sympathies.

“I feel Richard’s pain. I talked to him. I felt bad for him,” two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, said. The Hall of Famer will saddle Improbable, Roadster and the emerging favorite Game Winner. “Everything was looking good for him. There’s nothing like coming to the Derby with a horse with a legitimate chance to win it. And when you have that chance, and then all of a sudden the rug is pulled out from under you, it’s a bad feeling. At least the horse is going to be okay.”

Baffert’s name had come up with the scratch as well, as jockey Mike Smith, who won last year’s Derby on eventual Triple Crown winner Justify and was set to ride Omaha Beach in this year’s Derby, now does not have a horse. Many were wondering if Baffert would switch jockeys at the last minute, but the veteran trainer confirmed, however, that he would be keeping jockey Florent Geroux on Roadster.

“No, I never thought of that,” Baffert said. “I actually called Flo just to let him know. I said hello and he says, ‘Are you taking me off, boss?’ I go, “No, I’m all in, Flo,” and he laughed. It’s one of those things. I wouldn’t do that.

“But I really feel for Richard. That really hurts. I mean, I was in shock when Mike called me up and said, ‘My horse is out.’ We’re never safe until we get that saddle on there.”

Horse racing has seen a lot of criticism recently from people claiming the industry does not care about the horses. Omaha Beach’s connections had the favorite for the Derby, who had demolished his competition in his last two starts. Additionally, owner Rick Porter is a cancer survivor and has had a lot of tough cards dealt to him during his life despite all of his successes, and it would have been easy for him to ignore Omaha Beach’s coughing after a workout and take the chance of a lifetime to run the horse in the Derby. Instead, he and Mandella listened to the horse and caught a problem that most don’t discover until after a horse has run poorly in a race, and chose to put Omaha Beach first.

All it takes is watching Omaha Beach with his people for a few minutes to see what a well-loved sweetheart he is. He was one of the quietest racehorses in the barn, and enjoyed nuzzling Mandella’s head and face when he stood by the stall.

“He’s a special horse. He’d love to say hello, but he has a sore throat,” Mandella said, scratching the colt on the head with a smile. It was a bittersweet moment.

As for future Omaha Beach’s future his connections have a lot to think about.

“In a day or two I’ll sit around and look at the schedule, and we’ll have a plan. But we’ll be back,” Mandella said.

Despite the disappointment surrounding the Derby, we have a feeling this horse will be back with a vengeance, and the best from him is yet to come after his recovery.

The scratch clears the way for also-eligible Bodexpress to take the 20th slot at in the Derby on Saturday, which gives those with Derby wagers more to think about as well. What a winding road we’ve had to this year’s Derby. We only have two more days to wait, now, but it seems even in such a short amount of time, anything can happen.