ARCADIA, Calif. – Racing returned to Santa Anita on Saturday, and the grand Art Deco jewel was showing off. The San Gabriel Mountains were practically bursting out of the backstretch, the ridges to the east were covered in snow, and, after a year when the focus was frequently on policy and not racing itself, the best the sport has to offer was at long last front and center, courtesy of the likes of Mike Smith and Omaha Beach.
Smith added more laurels to his Hall of Fame career, winning two Grade 1 stakes to equal and then surpass Jerry Bailey as the all-time leader among jockeys for Grade 1 victories in North America, with 217. He hit the top spot with Omaha Beach, who breezed home in the $300,000 Runhappy Malibu for 3-year-olds for Omaha Beach’s third Grade 1 win of the year, following the Arkansas Derby and the Santa Anita Sprint Championship.
“It is very humbling. I’m a very blessed man,” said Smith, who is close to Bailey, their relationship pre-dating them riding together. They went to the same high school in El Paso, Texas, where Bailey’s dad was Smith’s dentist. “To surpass Jerry on Omaha Beach makes it that much more special.”
Omaha Beach ($2.80) was heavily favored to win the Malibu, and delivered before an announced crowd of 35,085. He swooped past three overmatched rivals on the far turn and easily held safe Roadster to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:22.33 for seven furlongs on the fast main track. Manny Wah was third, Complexity fourth, and early pacesetter Much Better faded to last in the field of five.
“He was supposed to do that. He was heavily favored. But he did it in style,” said Richard Mandella, who trains Omaha Beach.
The win was the fifth in 10 starts for Omaha Beach, a colt by War Front who made $180,000 and now has career earnings of $1,651,800 for owner Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms. His campaign this year was interrupted several times, most significantly when he had to miss the Kentucky Derby, for which he was the morning-line favorite, owing to needing surgery for an entrapped epiglottis. He wasn’t able to race again for nearly six months. The choppy waters have been expertly navigated by Mandella, with the only hiccup in a race the past 11 months being a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
His résumé should make him a finalist for Eclipse Awards for both champion 3-year-old male, and champion male sprinter.
There’s definitely an element of what might have been with Omaha Beach, because when he’s right, he’s seemingly as good or better than anyone of his generation. But his racing career will last just one more race. He is scheduled to compete next month in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, two days after the Eclipse Awards, then go to stud at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky.
Asked if he thinks Omaha Beach is still improving, Mandella said, “I just think it’s normal progression. The more experience, the better.”
Mandella holds Omaha Beach in the highest regard, naming him in the same breath as his four-time champion, the great mare Beholder. Seeing him go will not be easy. Omaha Beach is scheduled to leave for Florida on Monday, and Mandella said he will spend “as much time as I can” with Omaha Beach in Florida over the next month.
“Try to have a little enjoyment out of it,” Mandella said. “Go to Joe’s Stone Crab.”
It’ll all be centered around enjoying and admiring the horse, as it should.
This story originally appeared on drf.com.