Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
The 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prep races had been pretty underwhelming in my estimation leading into last weekend’s $750,000 Rebel Stakes, which was split into two divisions. Those two races went a long way toward rekindling my excitement for this year’s Triple Crown. This week’s profile feature is a colt in Omaha Beach that I view as a true rising star.
Ability: Horses are, like people, individuals who grow and mature at different rates with different strengths and weaknesses. Like pro sports drafts where a franchise can take what looks like a slam-dunk future All-Star — I’m looking at you Markelle Fultz — who never makes an impact for its team or grab a cornerstone with one of the last picks, there is no perfect algorithm for identifying a future equine star.
Trainers can’t just plug in a horse’s height, weight, pedigree, and conformation and print out the ideal roadmap to success. There are so many variables with a racehorse that even a Hall of Fame trainer like Richard Mandella, one of the most respected horsemen on the planet, sometimes uses trial and error to find what works for a young horse.
Take Rebel winner Omaha Beach as a prime example. Mandella started the highly regarded colt on the grass for his first three races and he ran reasonably well as the favorite in all three, finishing third and then second twice by a nose and then a neck.
Omaha Beach’s career took off, however, when Mandella switched him to the main track as a 3-year-old. He ran second at a mile and earned a new career-top Equibase Speed Figure on Jan. 4 before a runaway nine-length win on a sloppy track going seven-eighths of a mile on Feb. 2, both at Santa Anita. He again posted a new career-best Equibase Speed Figure on Feb. 2 in his first career win, improving from a 103 to a 109 and earning a start on the Kentucky Derby trail.
Ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith for the first time in the Rebel, Omaha Beach enjoyed a nearly perfect trip. He raced in third entering the first turn and then second just off the outside flank of pacesetter Market King until the far turn, where Omaha Beach accelerated on cue and seized command.
Previously undefeated champion Game Winner mounted a challenge under vigorous urging from jockey Joel Rosario while Smith had barely moved a muscle on Omaha Beach as the two charged into the stretch. Game Winner slowly but steadily cut into Omaha Beach’s lead but never could get past the winner, who also galloped out well in front.
After pressing an opening half-mile in 47.29 seconds, Omaha Beach completed his final sixteenth of a mile in an eye-catching 6.03 seconds and finished his final five-sixteenths in a strong 30.60 seconds.
He also took another step forward to a 110 Equibase Speed Figure, essentially pairing his speed figure and leaving open the chance to improve in his next race.
Other speed figure makers also rated the victory highly.
Omaha Beach’s 119 TimeForm US figure was the best for a winner in a points race for this year’s Kentucky Derby and his 96 Beyer Speed Figure matched Tax’s number for his Withers victory as the highest of the Derby preps this calendar year and just a point off the top of 97 earned from this group of 3-year-olds to date.
Brisnet also has Omaha Beach on a steadily improving 94-96-98 pattern for his three dirt starts.
Some might argue that we did not see the best Game Winner in the Rebel off of a four-month layoff, and I do think he will improve in his final Kentucky Derby prep, but I also think Omaha Beach has room to improve, perhaps even more than Game Winner.
Running style: Outside of his career debut, Omaha Beach has been third or better at the first point of call in his races. He uses his natural speed to gain tactical position and can either stalk or press depending on how the race shapes up. This type of running style has produced each of the last five Kentucky Derby winners and has been especially effective since the Derby points system was introduced, which eliminated contenders who amassed most of their earnings in graded stakes sprints. The Kentucky Derby field previously was determined by earnings in all graded stakes.
Connections: Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms is the owner of Omaha Beach, who is named for the beach where Allied forces landed during the D-Day invasion of World War II. Porter also raced similarly named stars Normandy Invasion and Battle of Midway.
Fox Hill Farms has raced among many stars over the years 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, two-time champion Songbird, 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Hard Spun, 2006 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Round Pond, and ill-fated 2008 Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles.
Porter, a retired automobile dealer, overcame a two-year battle with cancer and in 2017 was declared in remission and cancer-free.
Like the aforementioned Hard Spun, Porter bought Omaha Beach after he failed to meet his reserve at the Keeneland September yearling sale for consignor Eaton Sales, in Omaha Beach’s case for $625,000 in 2017.
Omaha Beach is trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella and was ridden in the Rebel by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, so the colt is in terrific hands.
Mandella is a California native and the son of a blacksmith. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2001 and two years later won a record four Breeders’ Cup races on a single card. Mandella has won nine Breeders’ Cup races in his career and trained champions Kotashaan, Phone Chatter, Halfbridled, Action This Day, and, most recently, four-time champion Beholder. Mandella has won 85 Grade 1 races, 250 graded stakes, and 455 stakes races from 2,109 career victories through March 18. Mandella does not have a top-three finish in a U.S. Triple Crown race; his top finish in the Kentucky Derby was a fifth with Soul of the Matter in 1994.
Smith is a two-time Eclipse Award winner who swept the Triple Crown with Justify in 2018 to give him seven career wins in U.S. Triple Crown races. The 2003 Hall of Fame inductee also won the Kentucky Derby in 2005 on Giacomo and holds the record for all-time Breeders’ Cup wins with 26. Smith has amassed 5,515 wins through March 18 and more than $320 million in lifetime purse earnings, which ranks third all-time among North American jockeys.
Pedigree: Omaha Beach is by top sire War Front, who has 46 graded stakes winners to date with many of them coming on the grass in Europe, so it’s easy to understand why he started out on the turf. But War Front has proved a versatile sire and now has two of the top 2019 Kentucky Derby hopefuls in Louisiana Derby favorite War of Will and Omaha Beach.
War Front is no doubt a standout sire of turf runners including Hong Kong champion Lines of Battle and Group/Grade 1 winners Declaration of War, U S Navy Flag, Air Force Blue, Brave Anna, Lancaster Bomber, Warning Flag, Homesman, Roly Poly, Avenge, Jack Milton, Data Link, Hit It a Bomb, War Command, Summer Soiree, American Patriot, and War Flag. He also has sired dirt Grade 1 winners The Factor and Peace and War, as well as West Virginia Derby and Super Derby winner Departing and 2011 Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Soldat.
Omaha Beach also gets a nice boost of class and stamina from the bottom half of his pedigree. Out of the winning Seeking the Gold mare Charming, Omaha Beach is a half-brother (same dam, different sire) to 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and champion 2-year-old filly Take Charge Brandi.
His second dam (maternal grandmother) is Take Charge Lady, a three-time Grade 1 winner, twice at 1 1/8 miles, and runner-up in the 2002 Kentucky Oaks. In addition to Charming, Take Charge Lady also produced 2013 Travers Stakes winner and champion 3-year-old male Will Take Charge and 2012 Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy. Take Charge Lady was named Broodmare of the Year in 2013.
Omaha Beach really checks almost every box for a Kentucky Derby hopeful at this time of year. He’s at the top of this class from a speed-figure perspective and he appears to be improving with each start for Hall of Fame connections. He has the ideal running style and finished very well in his stakes debut, plus he has a pedigree that indicates he should be effective at 1 ¼ miles. Sure, you could make a compelling argument for other 3-year-olds on the 2019 Derby trail, but none stronger in mid-March than the case for Omaha Beach.