Probable Kentucky Derby Favorite Omaha Beach Flawless in Final Tune-Up

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Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach, outside, pulls alongside a workmate Saturday at Churchill Downs before pulling away by five lengths in the strech in his final workout in preparation for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Waiting an extra day for his final serious workout before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve appeared to be just fine with Omaha Beach, as the Arkansas Derby winner delivered a powerful five-furlong breeze April 27 at Churchill Downs.

Going out on a fast track under sunny skies during the 7:30 a.m. time reserved for Derby and Longines Kentucky Oaks horses, Omaha Beach started his workout four lengths behind workmate Kowboy Karma, eliminated that margin just past midway in the turn, and finished five lengths in front, completing five furlongs in :59 under Julien Leparoux.

“He broke off about five lengths behind and I told Julien to just let him sit and do what we’ve been doing with him all along this year — just schooling him back, back. Then turning for home, [Julien] took a new cross and let him run, and he did do that,” Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said. “He went :59 flat and galloped out in 1:12 and change — that’s what we were looking for, and I don’t think we could be any better.”

When early morning rain resulted in an off-track April 26 in Louisville, Ky., Mandella opted to push back Omaha Beach’s workout to Saturday.

Greeted by a sunny morning, he felt like he’d made the right call for Omaha Beach’s single serious work between his one-length victory in the April 13 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the May 4 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

“I was worried a couple of days ago about what racetrack I’d have, and it’s in fabulous shape today. Everything keeps working out,” Mandella said. “The track was in fabulous shape.”

The workout was second-fastest of 43 at the distance Saturday morning at Churchill.

Leparoux was aboard for the workout Saturday but he’ll ride Master Fencer in the Derby, with two-time Derby winner Mike Smith on Omaha Beach for the 1 1/4-mile classic.

Omaha Beach enters the run for the roses off near gate-to-wire victories at Oaklawn in the Arkansas Derby and in a division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. Before that, he scored a Feb. 2 maiden victory where he tracked just off the pace before overwhelming his overmatched rivals at Santa Anita Park.

Omaha Beach getting a bath April 17. (Coady Photography)

Omaha Beach certainly figures to use his speed in the Derby, but if he needs to adjust a bit Mandella likes how the War Front colt doesn’t panic when he’s behind horses in workouts. At no point did Omaha Beach appear to rush when following Kowboy Karma, a stakes-winning 4-year-old trained by Larry Jones, early in Saturday’s workout. He stalked, engaged the workmate on the turn, and quickly put him away. Kowboy Karma was credited with a five-furlong breeze in 1:00 4/5.

“You watch his work today and all his works at home are the same — he’s very happy to do whatever we ask him to do,” Mandella said.

“He can run. Period. He has a great mind, he did that work and walked off the track like he didn’t do anything,” Mandella added later, noting that the crowds of people on the backstretch also didn’t bother the colt. “I think he has everything he needs to have.”

With Omaha Beach’s seven starts, including four this season, and his recent win in the Arkansas Derby three weeks before the Derby, Mandella is comfortable with the one serious workout ahead of the Louisville classic. Despite his Hall of Fame record, he has never had a horse win or place in any of the Triple Crown races.

“Since the Rebel Stakes, he just continues to grow and fill out. I never saw a 3-year-old this good at this time of year — in my barn — develop like this,” Mandella said. “I wish I could take credit for it, but I think The Big Man is helping.”

Mandella appeared confident and certainly seemed his usual, good-humored self —sharing his love of one liners:

  • On the single work: “I planned it that way so I wouldn’t have much to screw up.”
  • For a video segment when asked if the horse was ready for a “war” out there: “We’re here to invade Churchill Downs.”
  • On his biggest challenge: “Being here with one horse, there’s not enough for me to do. I’ve applied for a job on the frontside.”
  • On any Derby lessons five-time Derby winner Bob Baffert has shared with him in Southern California: “He’s been tutoring me about Derbys for a couple years and when I won the Rebel, he started throwing me curveballs, so I quit him and switched and went to Wayne Lukas.

Mandella, best known for his work with future Hall of Famer Beholder and winning four Breeders’ Cup races on a single day, figures he’ll be asked about his lack of a Derby success many times in the coming days. He’s saddled six Derby starters, with Soul of the Matter’s fifth-place in 1994 his best finish.

Omaha Beach on April 27. (Coady Photography)

“You grow up dreaming of doing this. I’ve never made it something that had to happen, kind of take horses one at a time and do what’s best for the horse. I just happened to have one that’s taken me here,” Mandella said. “I’m at a point in my life that I’m happy with what I’ve done. If I do it, that’s great — really great. But if I don’t, I’ll get by.”

Omaha Beach also was at home back at the barn. As his post-work bath concluded, Mandella spotted young Noah Singleton of nearby Charlestown, Ind., enjoying the morning on the backstretch with his parents. The trainer asked the 7-year-old boy if he’d like to pet Omaha Beach, and Singleton agreed.

After walking over to the horse, Singleton slowly put his hand up to pet Omaha Beach. As his hand neared the colt, Omaha Beach spotted what was going on and moved his head toward the boy, closing the remaining foot or two gap between them to accept the greeting and nuzzle.

Singleton, who was spending the day on the backstretch with his parents, summed up the experience as “pretty neat.”

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