Mandella Targets Elusive Kentucky Derby Victory With Omaha Beach

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Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, center with trophy, after Omaha Beach won the $1 million Arkansas Derby April 13 at Oaklawn Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella has accomplished some of horse racing’s greatest feats. He’s won nine Breeders’ Cup races, including his four wins in 2003 at Santa Anita Park capped by Pleasantly Perfect’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Now, 15 years after his most recent two Kentucky Derby runners at Churchill Downs, the California-based trainer will return with Fox Hill Farm’s Omaha Beach, fresh off a win in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby April 13 at Oaklawn Park.

Richard Mandella’s Derby Starters
Year Horse Finish
1984 Bedouin 15th
1994 Soul of the Matter 5th
1995 Afternoon Deelites 8th
1999 Desert Hero 13th
2004 Action This Day 6th
2004 Minister Eric 16th

“It’d be nice to do this,” Mandella said of potentially winning the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. “But I’m very satisfied with what I’ve done. If I do it, fine. If I don’t, fine. But it would be nice to do it.”

Mandella will have the help of jockey Mike Smith, a Hall of Famer himself, who chose to stay aboard Omaha Beach for the Derby after riding the colt in his last two races. Smith is also the regular rider for Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster, who will be ridden by Florent Geroux on the first Saturday in May.

Smith said part of his decision came from Omaha Beach beating both Game Winner and Improbable, two leading Derby contenders trained by Bob Baffert, with whom Smith won the Triple Crown last year aboard Justify.

“Of course, he hasn’t beaten Roadster yet, but he beat two of them, and two out of the three is good,” Smith added regarding Omaha Beach. “He just seems to be the horse that’s coming around at the right time right now. He really probably has a little bit more speed than them, more races under his belt that Roadster, but other than that it was [an] extremely difficult [choice]. They’re both so talented. It wouldn’t be surprising if either one of them won.”

Mandella said he could not have been more excited to receive the message Smith will remain aboard his trainee.

“He’s won a lot of big races for Bob Baffert, and I could’ve understood if he thought he should stick there,” Mandella said. “Just very appreciative that he chose mine. I think that shows a lot about what he thinks of the horse.”

A Derby win would only add to Mandella’s accomplishments. In addition to taking the Classic in 2003, he sent out Johar to a dead-heat victory in the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf and swept the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Action This Day and Halfbridled, respectively.

Ten years before winning four Breeders’ Cup races, he won a pair, taking the 1993 Turf with Kotashaan and Juvenile Fillies with Phone Chatter. More recently, Mandella saddled champion Beholder to three Breeders’ Cup wins — the 2012 Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The Derby has proven more elusive. Mandella, who grew up around horses as the son of blacksmith Gene Mandella and galloped horses at Three Rings Ranch while in high school, has sent out six Kentucky Derby runners. His top finishers in the classic include fifth-place finisher Soul of the Matter in 1994 and juvenile champion Action This Day, who finished sixth in 2004.

Omaha Beach arriving at Churchill Downs. (Coady Photography)

Omaha Beach, who arrived at Churchill Downs from Oaklawn the afternoon of April 16, will be among the top betting choices after victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.

“He’s probably going to be one of the favorites,” Mandella said, “so I haven’t had one of those yet for the Derby.”

Owner Rick Porter thought Mandella would be a good fit for Omaha Beach, who he purchased privately after the War Front colt did not meet his reserve price at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale.

“I think Dick is meticulous and he goes slowly, which sometimes owners don’t like, but in the long run I like the way he goes about bringing 3-year-olds along,” Porter said. “[Omaha Beach] was getting over the dirt in the mornings beautifully. He was working over the dirt wonderfully, but Richard wanted to try him on the grass first. He ran him on the grass and I think he ran third the first time, then he ran two seconds, beaten a neck and a nose.”

Porter has stabled horses with Mandella for about three years and called the trainer a wonderful person and good friend. Porter added that he and his wife, Betsy, go out to dinner with Mandella and his wife, Randi, every time they are together.

“He’s a good horseman and I just like him a lot as a person and trainer,” Porter said. “He’s been around a long time. He’s had a lot of great horses. I consider him certainly one of the best trainers in America.”

Mandella, currently at his Santa Anita base, is finalizing his own travel arrangements to get to Louisville, Ky., and plans to be on his way in the next few days. Meanwhile, Omaha Beach is settling into Barn 28 at Churchill (the barn of Larry Jones, who helped select Omaha Beach for Porter), and will be overseen by foreman Jose Vera, who has worked with Mandella for 35 years.

Omaha Beach will walk the shedrow for a few days to settle in after the van ride while recovering from his last race. Mandella added the colt probably will pick up track work again April 19.

As for finding a Kentucky Derby winner, Mandella said he’s had his eye out for one for 40-something years. Though Omaha Beach was originally thought to be a grass horse, he turned into the colt that brought Mandella back for another try at the run for the roses.

“I just do the best I can with what I’ve got, try to bring the best out in them as it presents itself,” Mandella said. “But he has developed just in front of my eyes. I wish I could take the credit for him, but I think he’s just a very good horse.”

Smith said he would like nothing more than to help Mandella capture the elusive victory.

“He’s a Hall of Fame trainer who’s been blessed and has won just about everything except the Derby,” the jockey remarked. “He certainly deserves one, so I’m hoping that this is the one.”

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