LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Racing, as those associated with Omaha Beach found out this week, can be awfully cruel. His trainer, Richard Mandella, is the kind of person who is acknowledged as deserving of a Kentucky Derby victory, the most glaring blank spot on a glittering résumé that has led him to the Hall of Fame.
Shug McGaughey, cut from a similar mold as Mandella, ticked off that box in 2013 with Orb, a Derby victory that seemed right and just. Owing to the scratch on Wednesday of Omaha Beach – the original morning-line favorite for the 145th Derby on Saturday here at Churchill Downs – Mandella will have to wait for another opportunity. But there’s never any guarantee of getting that chance.
Bill Mott, 65, fits neatly into the same category from which McGaughey, now 68, escaped six years ago, and in which Mandella, also 68, still resides. Their careers are remarkably similar and intertwined.
All three are in the Hall of Fame.
Mott has 10 Breeders’ Cup wins to nine for both Mandella and McGaughey.
And all three ran a horse in the Derby for the first time in 1984. Mott has had eight Derby starters over the years, McGaughey seven, Mandella six.
Mandella won’t get a chance Saturday. Mott, though, will get two.
He sends out Tacitus, winner of the Wood Memorial, and Country House, third behind Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. He has the experience from prior Derbies, and from seeing what unfolded with Mandella and Omaha Beach this past week, to know nothing is guaranteed. Not even getting to the race, let alone winning it.
“I’ve been there, and left with my tail between my legs,” Mott said. “I’m happy to be here, but I know what can go on. I’m excited. I feel good.”
He should. For a kid who hailed from tiny Mobridge, S.D., whose only initial connection to the sport was that his father subscribed to racing periodicals, Mott is appreciative of where he is today.
“The first time I remember listening to the Kentucky Derby was 1967,” said Mott, who was 13 at the time when Proud Clarion won with Bobby Ussery. “We had hauled horses in a truck to the races at Fort Pierre, South Dakota. I was sitting in the truck listening to the race.
“All the Derby was then was a voice on the radio. ‘Bobby Ussery bouncing around,’ I remember the announcer saying. I couldn’t imagine being at Churchill Downs, never dreamed of it. It was like going to New York. Or Egypt. It was another world.”
For Mott to prevail, he will have to beat the Derby’s reigning champ, Bob Baffert, who sends out the trio of Game Winner, Improbable, and Roadster in quest of a record-tying sixth Derby, and McGaughey, who seeks to double his Derby win total with Code of Honor.
This is a Derby, though, that is perceived as having a number of other top contenders, making this, on paper, a far more interesting Derby than recent vintages where there appeared to be a clear, strongly favored standout.
“Whoever gets the trip is gonna win it,” Baffert said.
The scratch of Omaha Beach has left Game Winner the favorite on the lines of both Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, and Mike Battaglia, who makes the line at Churchill Downs. But he is a lukewarm choice, 5-1 on Watchmaker’s line, 9-2 with Battaglia.
Complicating matters is a National Weather Service forecast that is calling for a 100 percent chance of rain and a high of just 66 degrees Saturday. Game Winner, a son of Candy Ride out of an A.P. Indy mare, is bred to like an off track, but he’s never raced on one.
Omaha Beach had drawn post 12, so all the horses who drew outside him move in one slot, including Bodexpress, who was the lone also-eligible at entry time Tuesday but has now drawn into the race.
The field was reduced to 19 on Friday when Haikal was scratched owing to an abscess in his left front foot, according to his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. Churchill Downs starter Scott Jordan said that with a field of 19, the runners would be loaded into stalls 2 through 20, with the inside stall in the starting gate left vacant. So, essentially all horses drawn inside of Haikal will now move out one slot. Betting numbers are not impacted by these changes.
Also Friday, Mike Smith — who was to ride Omaha Beach — was named to replace Corey Lanerie on Cutting Humor, according to trainer Todd Pletcher. Cutting Humor is owned by Starlight Racing, which was partners last year on Justify, whom Smith rode to a Triple Crown sweep. When situations like this occur, the jockey who is replaced is entitled to a share of the purse equal to what the rider who replaced him earns.
Tacitus has won three straight races after losing his debut. Jose Ortiz chose to ride him over Improbable, whom he rode to a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.
Country House is a big, strapping colt who has made steady progress but will need a leap forward to pull off the upset.
Game Winner was narrowly beaten by Omaha Beach in a division of the Rebel and stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. He captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile here and acts as though he is well suited to the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby.
Improbable acted up in the gate before the Arkansas Derby and was second best on the day. He wore blinkers that day for the first time. They are being removed for this race.
Roadster is 2 for 2 since returning from a six-month layoff following throat surgery. Mike Smith two weeks ago chose to ride Omaha Beach in the Derby instead of Roadster.
Florent Geroux picked up the mount on Roadster.
Code of Honor was compromised by a slow pace in the Florida Derby, in which he finished third. He won the Fountain of Youth in his previous start.
Maximum Security and Bodexpress took advantage of that paceless Florida Derby to run one-two the whole way around. Maximum Security is trained by Jason Servis, but he is owned by Gary and Mary West, who also own Game Winner, giving them chances with horses whose styles complement one another.
Maximum Security could have company early if War of Will can extricate himself from his inside draw. His trainer, Mark Casse, said he will be sent from there.
By My Standards comes off an upset win in the Louisiana Derby and has trained as well or better than any horse in the race in recent weeks.
Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner, sends out Spinoff, the Louisiana Derby runner-up, and Cutting Humor, winner of the Sunland Derby.
Vekoma’s paddling action might be right at home if he needs to swim through slop Saturday. He comes off a victory in the Blue Grass over Win Win Win, who ran into traffic on the far turn but still rallied for second.
Tax chased home Tacitus in the Wood, but got a relatively clean trip in what was a roughly run race.
Long Range Toddy, who beat Improbable in a division of the Rebel, regressed last time, finishing sixth in the Arkansas Derby when racing for the first time on an off track.
Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician were one-two in the United Arab Emirates Derby, which appears to be one of the weakest of the final round of preps.
Master Fencer has traveled from Japan, his presence a boon to Churchill’s bottom line since Japanese markets will now be involved, but on form he appears overmatched. He is the only horse in the race not using Lasix.
The Derby goes as race 12 on a 14-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Derby is approximately 6:50 p.m. The Derby is preceded by six other graded stakes, three of them fellow Grade 1s, including the Churchill Downs for sprinters, the Humana Distaff for female sprinters, and the Old Forester Turf Classic for older grass runners like Pegasus Turf winner Bricks and Mortar.
The Derby will be shown live on NBC Sports, and is being broadcast by the Horse Racing Radio Network.
– additional reporting by David Grening
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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