Odd as it may seem, just 24 hours ago, Fox Hill Farm’s Omaha Beach was clinging to the last available spot for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Now, in three weeks’ time, the son of War Front may be in position to become the seventh straight betting favorite to win in the run for the roses.
In a race that enabled the top three finishers to punch their tickets to the May 4 Kentucky Derby, it was Omaha Beach who grabbed the lion’s share of the qualifying points and accolades as he fended off Improbable in the stretch to register a length victory for trainer Richard Mandella in the $1 million Arkansas Derby over a sealed, sloppy track at Oaklawn Park April 13.
“I was hoping he’d hang in there [in the stretch] and he surely did,” Mandella said. “He’s learned to fight it out.”
Country House was third in a race that could produce four Kentucky Derby starters as Long Range Toddy, who was sixth, had already secured a spot in the field with 53.5 qualifying points.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
A winner of his last three starts, Omaha Beach is expected to head to Churchill Downs off a pair of graded stakes wins at Oaklawn Park in which he defeated two of trainer Bob Baffert’s top Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
“I think the horse certainly fits with the other horses. We’ll see how he comes out of the race and see how things are going. We’ll decide, probably, tonight [regarding the Kentucky Derby],” owner Rick Porter said.
Prior to defeating the Baffert-trained Improbable in the Arkansas Derby, Omaha Beach became a major Triple Crown contender when he edged Game Winner, Baffert’s 2018 champion 2-year-old male, by a nose in a division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes March 16.
“Since the Rebel, he has grown and is bigger,” said Mandella, who is 0-for-6 in the Kentucky Derby, with a fifth by Soul of the Matter in 1994 his best finish. “Either that or the mud is making him look bigger, I’m not sure which, but we’re sure excited. I hope he stays as good as he’s been because he has improved all year long.”
The Arkansas Derby was the final stakes in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series and with 100-40-20-10 points going to the top finishers, it put the finishing touches on the field of 20 for the run for the roses — for now.
With 137.5 points, the California-based Omaha Beach moved from 19th to second in the point standings behind Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets winner Tacitus (150).
Improbable was 26th and out of the Kentucky Derby picture prior to Saturday, but vaulted to 11th as the addition of 40 points gave him 65.
“[I was] happy with the way he ran,” Baffert said about Improbable. “I was a little bit worried in the starting gate. He was acting up in there. I had a few moments there of maybe he was going to rear up or do something and get left. Luckily, they unloaded him and put him back and he left there well. I thought Jose Ortiz did a masterful job of riding him. We got beat by a good horse. They showed how these California horses are good horses.”
Country House was 25th with 30 points but locked up the 17th spot with 50 points.
“We’ll talk to the owners [about the Kentucky Derby],” trainer Bill Mott said. “That’s what we were looking for [points], and he ran well.”
With Japan’s Master Fencer assured of the 20th spot, once the smoke cleared after the Arkansas Derby, the 19th spot belonged to TwinSpires.comLouisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff with 40 points. Missing out was Bodexpress, the maiden who finished second in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby. He also has 40 points, but has $36,000 less in graded stakes earnings than Spinoff, which left him on the bubble, needing a defection in order to run on May 4.
A winner by nine lengths in a Jan. 4 maiden race over a sloppy track at Santa Anita Park, Omaha Beach used his early speed to gain a narrow lead under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith on the backstretch in the Arkansas Derby and led by a half-length after a half-mile in :47.50.
Improbable, who was reluctant to load but broke from the gate smoothly, made a five-wide move on the backstretch to take aim at Omaha Beach. After six furlongs in 1:12.46, he drew within a length of the leader with three furlongs to go, but when challenged, the 8-5 favorite ($5.40) dug down, just as he did in the Rebel to stave off Game Winner. He kept Improbable and jockey Jose Ortiz at bay through the stretch to cross the finish line clear by a length in 1:49.91 for the 1 1/8 miles.
Improbable, the 9-5 second choice owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International, and Starlight Racing, was 5 ¾ lengths ahead of Country House, who in turn had a length on Laughing Fox to grab third and squeeze into the Kentucky Derby field.
The result leaves Smith with a nice dilemma as he also rides Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster.
“It’s a lovely decision to have. We’re going to go back and see how everyone comes back and go from there,” Smith said. “[We’ll] evaluate the situation. Then my agent will make the decision. That’s why I pay him.”
Bred in Kentucky by Charming Syndicate out of the Seeking the Gold mare Charming, Omaha Beach made his first three starts on turf. He has won three of four starts on dirt and has career earnings of $1,121,800.