Moments after Omaha Beach won the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) Saturday at Oaklawn, his owner, Rick Porter, said he was confident Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith would choose to ride the colt back in the Kentucky Derby.
“I go way back with Mike,” Porter said. “I’m betting on us.”
Porter bet right.
Smith said Tuesday afternoon that he would stick with Omaha Beach for the Kentucky Derby May 4 at Churchill Downs, rather than ride Roadster in the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown. Smith also rode Omaha Beach to victory in the second division of the $750,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) March 16 – the final major local Arkansas Derby prep – but he won the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) April 6 at Santa Anita aboard Roadster for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
News of Smith’s decision broke shortly after Omaha Beach arrived Tuesday afternoon at Churchill Downs following a 10-hour van ride from Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.
“I’m going to California and then I’ll come back and be there,” Mandella said Sunday morning. “Won’t be long.”
Omaha Beach is among six Oaklawn-raced horses that have enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, which 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, which offered 170 to its top four finishers (100-40-20-10).
According to Churchill Downs’ official Kentucky Derby points rankings, Omaha Beach ranks second with 137.5. Three other Arkansas Derby starters – Improbable (second), Country House (third) and Long Range Toddy (sixth) – are also at Churchill Downs after being flown to Kentucky Monday.
Improbable ranks 11th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 65 points. Long Range Toddy has 53.5 points to rank No. 13. Country House has 50 points to rank 17th.
Other Oaklawn-raced horses in the top 20 are No. 8 Game Winner (85 points), No. 15 and Cutting Humor (50). No. 24 Sueno (32) could start with defections.
Improbable and Game Winner are trained by Baffert, a five-time Kentucky Derby winner.
Game Winner, the country’s champion 2-year-old male, finished second to Omaha Beach, beaten a nose, in the second division of the Rebel. Long Range Toddy beat Improbable by a neck to win the first division of the Rebel. 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.
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.
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.
William Heiligbrodt has won numerous stakes races at Oaklawn, but the Texas owner said he hadn’t been in Hot Springs in probably 12 years to watch one of his horses run.
It was worth the wait.
The freakishly fast Mitole, a 4-year-old Eskendereya colt Heiligbrodt campaigns with wife Corinne, was a front-running 2 ¾-length winner of Saturday’s $500,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older horses, toppling two-time defending champion and 2018 Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Whitmore in the 6-furlong race run over a sloppy track.
The victory was the fifth consecutive, and first in graded company, for Mitole, who received a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 107 – equaling a career high – after handing Whitmore his first loss in eight career sprint starts at Oaklawn.
Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Mitole was a rising star after breaking his maiden by 10 lengths, clearing his first allowance condition by seven lengths and winning the $150,000 Bachelor Stakes by nine lengths last year at Oaklawn. Mitole won the $200,000 Chick Lang Stakes by 6 ¼ lengths May 19 at Pimlico, but didn’t race again in 2018 after having a bone chip removed from a knee, William Heiligbrodt said.
“He’s a project,” Heiligbrodt said near the paddock moments after the Count Fleet. “Horses that fast are tough. He’s just so tough because he’s so fast. I can’t explain it. I’ve been in the horse business all these years. I knew when I bought him that I had it – if I could get him here.”
Heiligbrodt purchased Mitole for $140,000 at the 2017 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s Spring Sale of 2-year-olds in training after he worked an eighth of a mile in :10 in the under-tack preview.
“Nobody picks out any of my horses,” Heiligbrodt said. “I buy them all. I went to the preview show and he breezed. He absolutely, for some reason, bolted to the outside and he still worked in (:10). I don’t know how fast he would have gone if he would have gone in a straight line. All these guys are experts that buy these horses. He had a few issues, so I took him for $140,000. For a horse that fast, that’s unbelievable. I think it will pay off.”
Mitole, in his 4-year-old debut, prepped for the Count Fleet with a 4 ¼-length allowance victory March 2 at Oaklawn, covering 6 furlongs in a meet-best 1:08.99. Overall, Mitole has a 6-2-1 record from nine starts and earnings of $701,510. He paid $2.80 as the heavy favorite Saturday.
“He’s been a project to get him to the point where we could really race him like this,” Heiligbrodt said. “He was ready last year after the races here. He just blew the track away here last year. We just didn’t get him to where we wanted to last year. Maybe this year.”
“Obviously,” Heiligbrodt said, the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita is the year-end goal for Mitole. Heiligbrodt finished fourth in the 2004 Sprint with Bwana Charlie.
“The only thing I know is that when you breed horses this fast, they produce,” Heiligbrodt said. “We’ve been doing it so long, with the mares and everything else. Just an unbelievable horse.”
Heiligbrodt said he started his first Thoroughbred, Appealing Breeze, in 1989. Appealing Breeze finished 10th in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) that year.
In addition to Mitole, Heiligbrodt, solely or in partnership, has campaigned several other Oaklawn stakes winners, including Secret Sip, Rated Fiesty, Eternal Cup, Southern Rhythm, Prize Fight, Fiesty Countess, Golden Mischief, Unruled and Mia Mischief.
Many of Heiligbrodt’s best horses in the early and mid-1990s were trained by the late James Keefer.
Post positions were to be drawn Wednesday for Saturday’s $100,000 Rainbow Stakes and $100,000 Rainbow Miss Stakes, 6-furlong races restricted to Arkansas-breds. … Favored Red Again ($6.40) became the meet’s first four-time winner in Sunday’s seventh race, a 1-mile starter allowance for older horses. … Favored Hoonani Road ($4.80) remained perfect in six career Oaklawn starts in Sunday’s ninth race, an Arkansas-bred allowance at 1 1/16 miles. The race was a prep for the inaugural $200,000 Arkansas Breeders’ Championship May 4. ... Through Sunday, the 47th day of the scheduled 57-day season, 474 claims had totaled $7,878,750.