With Omaha Beach out of the Derby, now what?

Code of Honor could have a chance. | Photo by Barbara Livingston

It’s a darn shame Omaha Beach had to be scratched from the 2019 Kentucky Derby, just three days before he would get the chance to Run for the Roses.

Omaha Beach was a deserving favorite, a popular choice among ordinary racing fans, a terrific-looking horse that can run, and he stood a very good chance of writing his name into history as a winner of the Kentucky Derby.

That’s a top rung of lasting fame that will now never carry his name.

The defection of Omaha Beach, and perhaps that of longshot chance Haikal, too, leaves many prognosticators scrambling to find a new favorite on which to hang their hat.

But not this scribe. We had already selected Code of Honor — in the electronic print pages of Insider Louisville yesterday. We had Omaha Beach seen as the one to beat, and Tacitus rated third. We’ll stick with the Code.

But the defection of Omaha Beach, who bunged up the epiglottis in his throat — a very treatable injury — could materially affect the Derby. Most certainly it will some jockeys and trainers rethinking their approach with such a stalwart now out of the race.

And a stalwart whose style is to run on, or right with the pacesetters. (In racing we would say he “attends” the pace.) The defection also gives handicappers a whole new set of considerations to ponder and fret over. Not to mention a lot of folks are going to need a new Derby Horse.

Gotta breathe big to be a racehorse

Omaha Beach | Courtesy of Coady Photography

First, let’s take a quick look at the injury to Omaha Beach.

It’s an inside the throat thing with a loose flap of skin impeding his breathing pathways. It showed up when the horse began coughing yesterday morning.

The problem is easily remedied with a very minor surgery. A veterinarian simply clips away the loose tissue.

Takes just a few minutes and the horse isn’t even given general anesthesia. But the patient will need a few days to recover, plus antibiotics. Then a brief rest before returning to training.

In 1987, Alysheba was diagnosed with the same problem, but it was still a couple months before the Kentucky Derby. Alysheba had not been “finishing” his races, running out of wind. The late trainer Jack Van Berg had the thing taken care of and Alysheba became a much-improved colt very rapidly in the spring of ’87, coming to the Derby.

Alysheba won the Blue Grass Stakes in such a robust manner the stewards disqualified him for brushing aside a contender named War. Then he won the Kentucky Derby — and not only won, but also survived almost going down in the stretch when a rival crossed in front of him.

That’s a famous tale, and Alysheba got his Derby. But Omaha Beach will not. The race, of course, is limited to three-year-old thoroughbreds. Meaning a horse gets just one chance in its life.

There’ve been plenty of horses who went wrong leading to the Derby and had to be scratched, some of them potentially great horses. Graustark, in 1966, was thought perhaps to be one of those once-in-a-generation stars, but he hurt his leg in the Blue Grass, and was retired. Graustark did enjoy a strong career at stud at Darby Dan Farm, and you’ll find his name in the pedigrees of many later stars — especially as a stamina influence.

Trouble can happen right up to the race. Calumet Farm star General Duke was scratched as the favorite the morning of 1957 Kentucky Derby, as was A.P. Indy in 1992.

Particularly tough for owner Christopher Chenery was favored Sir Gaylord had to be scratched from the 1959 Derby the day after the stable’s star filly Cicada won the Kentucky Oaks. Penny Chenery, Chris Chenery’s daughter, and later the owner of Secretariat, said her dad felt if they’d known in time they could have run Cicada in the Kentucky Derby instead of the Oaks, and she was good enough to win.

With Omaha Beach, nothing is certain, of course. But the horse’s injury might compare to, say, a tonsillectomy for a child (though different anatomically).

Owner Rick Porter, who has been in racing for years and has campaigned many top equine stars — but no Kentucky Derby winner — understands it all. The colt won’t run in any of the Triple Crown events this spring. But he should be fine by summer.

Trainer Richard Mandella will likely bring the colt back into racing shape slowly. I would say Mandella would chart a return for July or August at the surfside meeting at Del Mar, in California. Perhaps a try at the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, with a major goal set as the 2019 Breeders’ Cup in November at Santa Anita.

And good luck to him!

The problem of jockeys thinking

Jose Ortiz fluffs the mane of Tacitus, as the pair stride past the wire after winning the Wood Memorial in New York. | Photo by Barbara Livingston

How does all this affect the race? Maybe a lot.

For one thing, it will get some of the riders thinking.

There always has been an interesting factor looming in the background of this race: an expected lack of fast pace. Except for the one sure go-to-the-front horse, Maximum Security, most of the contenders like to hold off the throttle until the stretch.

Not talking about dropping way, way back. Just running idyllically behind a pacesetter or two banging it out on the front end — then go to work as they turn for home. That’s a move made by countless Derby winners, including California Chrome, American Pharoah and Always Dreaming in recent years.

But horsemen have already seen what can happen when a lone speed horse gets to idle early and accelerate late. They’re hard to catch. And you can bet some riders and trainers are considering it now.

Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez won the Florida Derby in just such fashion. Saez popped Maximum out of the gate on top, and soon found himself absolutely alone on the lead. The jockey began slowing the pace, until down the backstretch he was “walking the dog.” That’s just exactly as it sounds. Out in the evening, no hurry, just walking the dog.

Then Saez floored it on the turn for home and was gone.

Nobody came close to jockey Luis Saez and Maximum Security, who strolled to easy early fractions and ran away late in the Florida Derby. | Photo by Leslie Martin

My thinking is nobody wanted to test Maximum Security early and were just going to leave that up to Mike Smith on Omaha Beach. Omaha is a naturally fast horse that figured to right up there anyway, nipping at Maximum Security’s heels. Let Mike do it.

But now?

Well, I would wager the pace will quicken. Some jocks will take the chance to get out front and walk the dog themselves, without Omaha to police the speed.

But some won’t. We’d say the upper echelon of elite riders, including Joel Rosario on Game Winner, Johnny Velazquez on Code of Honor, Javier Castellano on Vekoma, and the Ortiz brothers on Tacitus and Improbable will sit chilly.

Mentioning Vekoma and Castellano, this is a horse with few fanfares coming into the Kentucky Derby off a Blue Grass Stakes victory. Maybe not a distance horse. But if you’ve ever seen Javier Castellano ride, you might expect a better finish than the horse’s long odds (maybe 20-1) might suggest.

Jockey Javier Castellano aboard Bolt d’Oro (on left) last year | Courtesy of Benoit Photo

The four-time Eclipse Award winner rides winners in every manner, but he’s particularly expert in one style. You watch a race and the whole race you don’t see Castellano.

Then they turn for home … and there he is! Where did he come from? What was he doing?

My theory is Javier’s just been letting his horse be a horse. Just run with the herd. Pick out what’s comfortable for itself. Don’t do anything. Then Castellano finds the gap he likes and hits the accelerator … and there he is!

I’m not sure if Vekoma is really a match for this competition. But it’s a style that could win this Kentucky Derby.

I’ll look for Game Winner and Improbable to be not far from the lead. They’re both from the Derby-preferred Raise A Native sire line. Farther back — but not way, way back — will be Tacitus and Code of Honor.

We’ll tab those four, and include their betting numbers: 16. Game Winner, 5. Improbable, 8. Tacitus, and 13. Code of Honor — those are the four I think with the best shots.

Coming along late, I like the French horse Plus Que Parfait. Of course he’s not really French. He was born in Kentucky and lives out at Churchill Downs in Barn 9. He has a UK hat and a UofL hat and switches them depending on who might be walking along the shed row with a bag of carrots.

Plus Que Parfait does hail from the Hail to Reason sire line, however. And that is good in the Kentucky Derby.

I also had an eye on Haikal, but he might be out now, too, with an abscess on his foot. Remedy? Epsom salts and stay off the foot for a few days. Maximum Security I’m throwing out for a very scientific reason: I don’t like his name. Sounds like jail. I mean why didn’t they just call him Behind Bars, or Electric Chair?

As we’ve been all spring, we’re still on Code of Honor, and will now make it 13-8-16-5.

But whatever horse you pick, I would recommend starting with a $1 exacta wheel — your horse on top, with every other horse second. Using Code of Honor as an example, that would be called this way at the window:

Race 12; $1 exacta wheel — 13 WITH all.

If 19 run, that costs $18.

Of all the Oaks horses in all the world, I had to pick this one?

I have a few bright ideas on the Kentucky Oaks, which mostly come under the heading of the more horses you use, the less cash you will have weighing you down on the walk home. Just find one and stop looking.

Bellafina is the favorite with a record of six wins in eight starts in California, including her last three. Flavian Prat rides. She’s No. 4. Could very well win.

Beyond that there are several with promise, including 1. Out for a Spin, 3. Lady Apple, 5. Flor de La Mar, 8. Motion Emotion, 10. Champagne Anyone … and has anyone mentioned No. 11 Jeltrin to you? She paid $105 to win last time, and I had her. So that’s my pick for the Kentucky Oaks … No. 11. Jeltrin!