Six Oaklawn-raced horses have enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, including Omaha Beach and Improbable, the top two finishers in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
Omaha Beach exited his one-length victory in good order, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said Sunday morning, adding the War Front colt, owned by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, will probably be vanned Tuesday to Churchill Downs to begin preparations for the May 4 Run for the Roses.
“We’ve had him out and checked him over,” Mandella said. “He looks great.”
The Arkansas Derby represented the third consecutive victory for the rapidly improving Omaha Beach, who has found a home on dirt after losing his first three career starts on turf. Omaha Beach broke his maiden by nine lengths Feb. 2 at Santa Anita, then won the second division of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16 by a nose over Game Winner, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s previously unbeaten 2-year-old champion.
Omaha Beach received a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 101 for his Arkansas Derby victory – a career high – after generating a 90 for his 7-furlong maiden victory and a 96 for the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, his stakes debut and the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
Before an estimated crowd of 45,000, Omaha Beach ($5.40) was the slight 8-5 favorite over Improbable (9-5). Ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Omaha Beach ran 1 1/8 miles over a sloppy track in 1:49.91, slightly faster than Quip’s winning time in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses about 90 minutes earlier. Omaha Beach carried equal top weight of 122 pounds.
“I’ve said all along, some day somebody will ask me, ‘How did you get this horse beat so many times?” Mandella said with a laugh. “I started saying that way back because we always thought it was there.”
The Arkansas Derby offered 170 points to the top four finishers (100-40-20-10) toward starting eligibility for the Kentucky Derby.
According to Churchill Downs’ official Kentucky Derby points rankings, Omaha Beach ranks second with 137.5. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters. If the race overfills, starting preference is given to horses with the highest point totals in designated races like the Arkansas Derby.
A Tex Sutton flight is scheduled Monday from Little Rock, Ark. (roughly 50 miles northeast of Hot Springs) to Lexington, Ky. (roughly 80 miles east of Churchill Downs), but Mandella said he prefers to van Omaha Beach to Kentucky. Omaha Beach was flown from his Southern California base to Arkansas last Tuesday.
“I don’t want to go tomorrow morning,” Mandella said. “I just got him here. Let him have an extra day. I’m thinking of just putting him on a van and go straight through. You have to van to Little Rock now. It’s not right out of this airport, and the plane’s going to Lexington. So, by the time you add the hours of shipping there, shipping there and all that, a few more hours you can just van straight there and not get on a plane. I’m thinking that might be a better way.”
Mandella, 68, is seeking his first Kentucky Derby victory. His best finish with six starters to date, Soul of the Matter, was fifth in 1994. Conversely, Baffert, Mandella’s Santa Anita neighbor, has won the Kentucky Derby five times, the last two with eventual Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). Baffert, Mandella kidded, had been giving lessons on how to win the Kentucky Derby – until roughly 10 weeks ago.
“Baffert, he quit helping me when I got a real shot,” Mandella said.
Omaha Beach earned $600,000 for the victory, his third in seven starts, to raise his career bankroll to $1,121,800.
Three Arkansas Derby winners have captured the Kentucky Derby – Sunny’s Halo (1983), Smarty Jones (2004) and American Pharoah (2015). All three also won the Rebel.
Baffert said immediately following the Arkansas Derby that Improbable would be pointed for the Kentucky Derby. After finishing second in the first division of the Rebel – the City Zip colt’s first career loss – Improbable was wound up in the Arkansas Derby post parade and antsy in the starting gate, having to be backed out after initially loading into stall 1. He still finished a strong second (it was 5 ¾ lengths back to third-place finisher Country House).
Improbable ranks 11th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 65 points.
“I thought he had to run first or second to have a chance, so it puts him right there in the mix,” Baffert said. “It’s a wide-open Derby this year. I just feel thankful. It could have been disastrous. Really had some anxious moments there. I think he ran a great race and he’s going to improve off this. I’ve been bringing him along, getting him ready by running him and so he’ll move forward off of it.”
Improbable raced in blinkers for the first time Saturday after losing a little focus in the Rebel, Baffert said. The equipment change, Baffert said, didn’t help.
“I don’t think he needs the blinkers,” Baffert said. “I think they got him a little upset. That’s probably why he acted up in the gate.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said Sunday morning that he was pleased with Country House’s performance after the late-running Lookin At Lucky colt was wheeled back in three weeks following a fourth-place finish in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) March 23 at Fair Grounds.
“He was where we thought he’d be early,” Mott said. “He came with a good run. On the middle of the turn, he was creeping up. I was starting to get a little excited. He made a little run. After he got past the field, apart from the two leaders (Omaha Beach and Improbable) that were quite a ways in front, I thought he might have started waiting a little bit and then the fourth horse (Laughing Fox) came up on his inside and kind of pushed him along a little bit.”
Mott said Country House came out of the race well, but no decision has been made regarding the Kentucky Derby. The colt, who races for Mrs. J.V. Shields Jr., E.J.M. McFadden Jr. and LNJ Foxwoods (Jamie Roth), has 50 points to rank 17th.
“I haven’t talked to the owners this morning,” Mott said. “As far as I know, they were pleased. Initially, it sounded like they were last night. We didn’t talk Derby. I think that was one of the goals, to get enough points to go to the Derby. Now we’ve got to assess the situation and see if it makes sense to enter up.”
Other Oaklawn-raced horses in the top 20 on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard are No. 8 Game Winner (85 points), No. 13 Long Range Toddy (53.5), and No. 15 Cutting Humor (50). No. 24 Sueno (32) would need several defections to make the field.
Long Range Toddy beat Improbable by a neck to win the first division of the Rebel for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Long Range Toddy ran sixth in the Arkansas Derby. Cutting Humor finished seventh as the favorite in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 18 for trainer Todd Pletcher. Sueno was runner-up in the Southwest, Oaklawn’s second of four Kentucky Derby points races. Sueno is trained by Keith Desormeaux.
The Kentucky Derby field has been limited to 20 starters since 1975. At least 20 horses have entered the 1 ¼-mile race every year since 2004, and 18 of the last 20 years, according to Churchill Downs.