It was one of the most exciting weeks in his life. He sat quietly on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve favorite Omaha Beach as they galloped and walked the backside at Churchill Downs accompanied by the staccato shutter clicks of hundreds of cameras. His hand would gracefully caress Omaha’s neck. They were a team. Taylor Cambra was preparing him for the greatest two minutes in sports that would bring more than 160,000 fans to the track and millions more viewers around the world.
He was ready. He had a special outfit purchased for Derby day. His Dad was flying in from California. Every morning, hundreds of fans and media would gather at trainer Richard Mandella’s barn to watch Omaha get a bath. It was obvious that there is a special relationship between Cambra, the exercise rider, and Omaha Beach. One could feel the electricity in the air. Mandella was gracious and kind with his time talking to the media. He would smile as Cambra walked Omaha around the shed row and teased him that he was “two hamburgers out of having a job!” This barn was the “go to” place to be in the mornings before the Derby.
Omaha Beach has the perfect name. He has the perfect team supporting him. Then the world came crashing down when Omaha was diagnosed with an entrapped epiglottis. There were no signs in advance. Everything was going forward and then he coughed after a workout. They had him scoped. They were hoping against hope. It was apparent that Omaha Beach needed surgery to free his epiglottis. Sadly, Omaha Beach – the favorite – the darling of the backside was scratched.
Cambra remembers “It was definitely a life changing experience, for sure. We have all grown from it after the whole thing happened.” Then he paused as he struggled for words and thoughts. “It felt amazing. Something that I have always dreamt of but never actually thought it would happen to me. To get to be able to do that was a dream come true.”
It’s not the end of the world. But it dashed the hopes and dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby. Cambra said “Definitely a lot to take in for me, for the boss and for the whole team. Going in with the favorite. With the horse that you had thought had a legitimate shot at it (winning the Kentucky Derby) and have to scratch. You have to give Richard a lot of props for doing what’s right for the horse instead of sending him out there and trying it anyways. “
The day of the diagnosis, Cambra hopped on a commercial flight back to California. He was back at work the next morning. He grew silent when asked to describe the flight home. He sighed. He paused and sighed again. It had to have been such an emotional time to step away from one of the most thrilling events in horse racing. The hype and buildup the week before the Derby is unlike any other race in the country. Cambra closed his eyes and lowered his head as he struggled to remember the flight home. With a soft voice, he used short phrases. “It was heavy. A lot of emotions. Good and bad. I was very thankful that I got to go experience a lot of it. Everything happens for a reason and you just got to keep on keeping on.” He was alone with his thoughts and feelings.
Omaha Beach had the surgery in Kentucky and was away for more than a month before he returned to the Mandella barn. It was a joyful return! “He definitely knows this place. He was happy to be back here. He was happy to get to go back to the track! I’m sure he knows us because he is a very smart horse. He is a very loving horse. He’s happy to be here for sure and all the spoils he gets being here.” Cambra’s eyes lit up as he laughed. “I was happy. He was happy. Happy horses play! He lets you know when he’s happy because he plays a lot! That guy! He squeals! That’s when you know. Most people won’t be able to see it, but you can feel him underneath you. He squirms like a fish and squeals like a pig. That’s him.”
Taylor allows himself a large smile. “I was very happy. My heart felt whole. I love and treat them (the horses) all the same but he is one that is in my heart a little more than the rest of them. For good reason. He changed my life. There’s nothing that comes close to him as far as that goes. Not only with the press but the experience that I got because my future is horse racing. To be able to go to the highest level in the game with an animal like him is an experience that you can’t just buy.” Cambra expressed how thankful he is to be working in the Mandella barn.
He is detail oriented and extremely polite. One of his co-workers remembered that when they met, Cambra called him “Sir” and this cemented their friendship. He stops before entering Mandella’s office and kicks the dirt off his boots. When other members offered to complete a task he was working on, he graciously told them no and that he would do it. He works from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. and rides eight horses every morning.
When Cambra approaches a horse, there are a few items on his checklist before he heads to the track. “The first thing I do before I get on is to make sure my saddle is sitting good. Then I get on and try to get a feel for the horse. They will give you all the signs in the world if they are going to do something bad. Just by watching their ears and their body language. Mostly body language. It’s a big key for horses. That’s how they communicate with us.”
When he was on the rodeo circuit riding bucking broncos, he was very careful to check out the body language of his assigned mount. “Because if you don’t learn it, you get hurt really quick. The horses will let you know when you are crawling down into the bucking chute by their facial expressions and their ears. You learn to get around some of them a little smoother than others. It all falls back to horsemanship.”
Does Omaha act up? “He gets playful. He’s pretty classy. When he gets to feeling good, he lets you know. But he never gets out of line.” Does he sense the buildup to the Breeders’ Cup? “In some aspects he does because he has been around the block. There are more people taking pictures of him. For the rest of the horses, it’s all new for them.”
Someday Cambra would like to get himself a nice saddle horse. He has given this a lot of thought. He says “I want a good-looking quarter horse. It has to be big. My father outrode for years and he always rode nice horses. It would be a shame for me not to follow up.”
Walking the shed row, he proudly points out some of Mandella’s other contenders. He brings United (contender in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf) a carrot. United wants the carrot and the two of them have quite a flirting session before United finally decides to step forward to the front of the stall for the carrot he wanted so badly. Nearby is the youngster Goliad who won his first race, a maiden special weight, on Sept. 28 at Santa Anita Park. Cambra had him on the track the previous morning. He said the entire barn is very excited about Goliad, who was sired by War Front. Around the corner a beautiful filly named Siberian Iris pokes her head out of the stall and Cambra wraps his arms around her. He says this is “his girl” and you can immediately see that there is a deep connection between the two.
Cambra has experienced the plethora of emotions on his journey with Omaha Beach. One can imagine how lonely and sad that unexpected plane ride back to California was after having dreams that the horse you ride might have been wearing the red roses of the Kentucky Derby.
Now Omaha Beach is a contender in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Cambra is ready for this week’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita and even bought a new suit. Grinning sharply, he exclaimed “Got to dress the part!”
The track is filled every morning with photographers and journalists taking note of Omaha Beach. On race day, don’t forget to take notice of the tall quiet young man dressed up in a suit by his side. They have spent many hours and miles together getting ready for this race.
With Mike Smith in the irons, there will a lot of hearts riding around the track with him and Omaha Beach. Taylor Cambra knows how exceptional this horse is. Omaha occupies a special place in his heart, taking up a little bit more room than most. If fans are observant, they might see him “squirm like a fish and squeal like a pig.” This unique horse is indeed happy to be back on the track.