Editor’s note: Omaha Beach was scratched after this story published.
There’s a crowd at the top of the Kentucky Derby. As many as six leading contenders — trained by four Hall of Fame trainers — appear to be standouts in a field of 20 set to contest the 145th Run for the Roses on Saturday (6:43 p.m., NBC), at Churchill Downs.
That’s a far different situation than many recent Derbys in which a single top contender stood out, got bet and won the race exactly as scripted. The betting favorite has triumphed for six straight years, which is statistically astounding for a 20-horse race.
Last year, Justify slashed through pouring rains to win the Kentucky Derby, en route to a Triple Crown triumph. A wonderful winner, Justify, but he didn’t pay peanuts.
We’re hoping for a lot better odds this time, and there are plenty of possibilities to make that happen. Even the likely favorite, Omaha Beach, should be at least 4-1. Which is better money than, say, working.
But it doesn’t have to be Omaha Beach. We have a couple of others to suggest. And some to forget.
It’s like a movie: They put the names of the big stars in large type over the opening scenes. And this year’s drama has plenty of leading actors elbowing each other around for the best billing: Code of Honor, Tacitus, Game Winner, Improbable and Omaha Beach.
The lesser lights — and there’s at least 10 of them — may be listed in the credits at the end. In small type.
It’s not that they’re bad horses. From a crop of 30,000-plus foals three years ago, these are the top 20 qualifiers. But this Derby, we think, belongs to the elite class.
There’re also some “in-between” horses that might have some impact, but have some holes in their “form.” The kind of horses that might, though probably not, but maybe, do something. I’d put Plus Que Parfait, Haikal and Maximum Security in this category, and we will mention them later.
Landing on Omaha Beach
Let’s look at the top echelon, and you have to begin Omaha Beach.
The powerful-looking bay colt has a familiar style that’s been very successful in recent Derbys. You’ve seen Justify, Always Dreaming, American Pharoah, California Chrome all win in the same way — a top horse that breaks alertly, cruises close to the pace, the rider waits for the right moment to push the button — and the horse pops to the lead turning for home and stretches out to victory before a cheering throng beneath the famed Twin Spires.
That’s just the way Omaha Beach won two races at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas to vault to the forefront of Kentucky Derby contenders.
The Arkansas Derby was run over a wet, muddy track, and Omaha Beach broke sharply from the No. 3 post. Jockey Mike Smith had options what to do and allowed rider Calvin Borel to shoot to the lead with a 50-1 shot, with a couple of others coming out fast, too.
But Smith didn’t ease over to the rail to wait for later. We mentioned the track was sloppy and Omaha broke from the No. 3 post. But as he settled into stride, he seemed to move just to his right and began following a path “drawn” in the muddy dirt when trackmen had “floated” the surface prior to the race to squeeze out water.
Tractors pull weighted sleds around the track, in the same way they drag harrows over a fast track. Anyhow, that left a faint line, and Omaha Beach followed it.
Coming out of the first turn, Smith moved one finger, or something, and Omaha Beach accelerated right to the front — and kept his path along that line around another turn and to the finish.
Down the stretch, Improbable challenged, but Omaha Beach stayed on his line and held sway.
This is a smart horse.
And he can run.
“I’ve never had a three-year-old doing this well, this early (in the year). He’s just special,” says trainer Richard Mandella, a 68-year-old native Californian who’s enjoyed a wonderful career training at the top level of the game in the Golden State. Mandella has had six previous Kentucky Derby starters without a win, but Omaha Beach is by far his best chance.
The name Omaha Beach was given to the horse by owner Rick Porter, who comes up with some good ones. It’s a stirring name, harkening back to World War II, when 156,000 Allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy to launch the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. D-Day.
In the Kentucky Derby, Omaha Beach will be No. 12, sporting Porter’s red and white silks.
“Since the Rebel (Stakes at Oaklawn), he’s filled out and just gotten better,” says Mandella. “He’s pure class. And he’s a kind horse, a horse that’s easy to be around.”
Last Saturday, Mandella sent Omaha Beach for a final workout at speed at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Kentucky Derby, a week away. Jockey Julian Leparoux (who will ride Master Fencer in the Derby) pinch hit for Smith and “breezed” Omaha Beach five furlongs in company with another horse.
After a quarter-mile in 23 3/5, Leparoux let out a just notch and Omaha Beach inhaled his workmate in about a second and danced on to the finish in :59-flat for five furlongs. That’s half the Derby distance.
“I just wanted him to have one more work. That’s all he needed,” says Mandella.
The trainer was smiling in the sunshine outside his barn, looking out from under one of those hounds tooth-wool caps he always wears.
“He went and got him,” Mandella says, noting the way Omaha Beach flew by the workmate horse. “And I really liked that he settled down right down after the work. He acts like a professional racehorse. I don’t think this work took too much out of him at all. It couldn’t have gone better.”
Then his smile got even broader.
“It’s all working out just right.”
Code of Honor and Tacitus
But things are also working out just right for at least two other candidates. Both Code of Honor and Tacitus have the pedigree and class to spring an upset of Omaha Beach.
Code of Honor is kind of an outlier among the Derby candidates. He’s bred in Kentucky but sired by a young European Stallion named Noble Mission, a son of Galileo, the No. 1 stallion in the world.
The other half of Code of Honor’s pedigree is quite the opposite. His dame Reunited is a plain old American gal, strictly dirt-bred, with not even a hint of stamina.
But trainer Shug McGaughey says the compact chestnut colt will like the Derby Distance, and even more.
“The thing I know is he can get a mile-and-a-quarter,” says McGaughey, who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb.
The trainer is Kentucky-bred himself and is particularly pleased with the way Code of Honor has settled into things for the Derby. After winning the Fountain of Youth and finishing third in the Florida Derby in Miami, McGaughey shipped Code of Honor to Keeneland Race Course five weeks ago. There Code of Honor trained in the pastoral setting of the bluegrass horse farm country.
Two weeks ago, Code of Honor “fired a bullet” working over a sloppy racetrack on a cold rainy morning at Keeneland. Straight as a string.
“He had a good month at Keeneland,” says McGaughey in his understated day. This past Sunday, Code of Honor ran straight again at Churchill Downs, where he’s settled in at McGaughey’s old home Barn 43. Under Easter Day sunshine, Code of Honor clicked off a half mile in a :46 4/5. He’s sharp now.
Code of Honor is owned by Will Farish, founder of Lane’s End Farm in Versailles. Farish was a friend of the late President George H.W. Bush, who appointed Farish the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, in the United Kingdom. When Queen Elizabeth II comes to Kentucky to look in on her American horses or attend the Kentucky Derby, she bunks at Lanes End.
The big plus for Code of Honor could be two-time Derby-winning jockey Johnny Velazquez, who had other chances but stuck like glue with Code of Honor.
What’s great about Johnny V. is he can sail a horse over a racetrack like gliding a canoe on a still lake. That’s what he did with Animal Kingdom, a horse he rolled inside, outside and by maybe ten rivals en route to winning the 2011 Derby. Never saw the whip. Never missed a stride.
We imagine that could be Code of Honor, too. Coming from not far back and doing his best running at the end — when others will be tired.
True story, according to Tacitus
The other one we like to win the Derby is No. 8 Tacitus, a high-bred gray colt that’s bloomed like redbud and dogwood — only in shades of gray — in his time in Kentucky readying up for the Run for the Roses.
Tacitus is named for the great Roman historian Tacitus, who lived at the time of Augustus Caesar and chronicled the flowering of the Roman Empire.
Derby fan Kenny Maier says Tacitus was the first revisionist historian, of which we have plenty now. We would say Tacitus simply tossed out the gods and propaganda and recorded history accurately.
The horse named Tacitus is trained by Bill Mott for the international powerhouse Juddmonte Farm. Light green and pink silks.
Mott got his start in South Dakota, came on to Kentucky to become the leading all-time stakes-winning trainer at Churchill Downs, and graduated to New York where he has his hands on the best-bred horses in America — and does plenty with them. Mott will be looking for his first Derby with Tacitus, and also has a horse named Country House entered.
But Tacitus’ story might also nicely tie to rising young jockey Jose Ortiz, who is 25 and rides like a dream. As does his brother Irad Ortiz Jr., who is 26 and will ride Beholder in the Derby. There’s just something about the Ortiz brothers, and Mott knows what it is.
“They always show up for the big days,” says Mott.
Don’t forget Frenchy
Elsewhere, No. 16 Game Winner certainly has the grit and fire to win. Last season he won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile right here at Churchill Downs, so you know he likes the track.
In six starts he’s won four times with two seconds. Omaha Beach beat him by about an inch in Arkansas, and Roadster nipped him in the Santa Anita Derby. In that race, Game Winner did all the work, dueling for the lead three-wide around both turns. Then Roadster came along and picked up the pieces. Game Winner might not even have seen him.
Interestingly, Baffert has trained Game Winner more rigorously than his other two colts, Roadster and Improbable. Baffert says the horse is tough and likes the work. “He’s a fighter.”
That’s the kind of contender you simply cannot leave out exactas and trifectas — and we won’t.
And speaking of the trifectas, two longshots that could come along late to get a piece of the pie are No. 11 Haikal and No. 9 Plus Que Parfait. Haikal comes from way, way back. Plus Que Parfait owns a pedigree with stamina in it.
And Frenchy, as we call him since Plus Que Parfait is a mouthful of truffle to say, has a story.
In the first place, he’s not French. And even though he won the $2 million U.A.E. Derby in Dubai, he’s not Arabian, either. The fact is Plus Que Parfait lives right over at Barn 9 at Churchill Downs, a decidedly local horse.
Trainer Brendan Walsh had Frenchy down in Louisiana and Florida this winter but wasn’t beating anybody. So they put him on a plane and shipped him to Dubai to get some easy money. They also flew jockey Jose Ortiz over to make sure that got a good ride. And he won.
Ortiz passed a bunch of very ordinary horses and Frenchy’s people were suddenly a $1.2 million richer. Plus the horse got points to get in the Kentucky Derby.
One negative factor for Plus Que Parfait Frenchy is the long trip to Dubai sometimes conks horses out when they return. But Frenchy is a sturdy lad with a distance pedigree. He might get a piece of it at 50-1. I’ll use him second and third in some trifectas.
Another that has a reason is No. 6. Vekoma, trained by Louisville Atherton High grad George Weaver. The Blue Grass Stakes winner might not be a distance horse at heart, but he’s ridden by four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano.
Vekoma’s best race would be typical Castellano: You don’t see him the whole race until they turn for home — and suddenly … there he is!
One we won’t select is No. 7. Maximum Security. The Florida Derby winner will bet and is probably headed straight to the top under jockey Luis Saez. This is the fast horse that won the Florida Derby wire-to-wire. What we don’t like about him? His name, Maximum Security. Sounds like jail.
And we won’t fall for War of Will, who is a hot horse in some circles. Not ours. War of Will has a nice pedigree for the Derby, but the other morning he was unruly, fighting the rider and throwing his head. Should have been thinking about training. The others are.
Could you just give us the numbers?
With all that said, the one to beat remains the one we began with, No. 12 Omaha Beach. But this handicapper can’t resist a good chance, at good odds. We love the 15-1 morning line on Code of Honor, and it wouldn’t hurt our feelings a bit if he got off at 20-1. The idea is to take a shot with a horse that could rock the tote board. Bring home all the kale.
Tacitus won’t be that long, but he’s very playable, too, at about 10-1.
Let’s make it: Code of Honor, Omaha Beach and Tacitus.
13-12-8 in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Saluting Rick Cushing
We also wish to note the recent passing of Rick Cushing, the longtime Courier Journal handicapper, author and historian. Cushing’s first big Derby score came in 1967, when he picked Proud Clarion, at $62.20.
In those days, Kentucky still had “blue laws” that prohibited mercantile activity on Sunday. But the day after the Derby, Cushing went out on Dixie Highway and found a used car lot that was closed on Sunday, but sort of open, where he was able to invest his Derby winnings in a big ol’ Oldsmobile that was approximately the size of an aircraft carrier.
All the right moves
It’s interesting about the trainers: All of the horses we think are best for this Derby are trained by Hall of Fame trainers. Bob Baffert has Game Winner, Improbable and Roadster. Dick Mandella has Omaha Beach. Shug McGaughey has Code of Honor. And Bill Mott sends out Tacitus and Country House.
What does that mean?
Well, it means you get the best of it when you take one of those trainer’s horses. All four have been voted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga, N.Y., by winning the biggest races with the best horses. All four have special knowledge of thoroughbred racehorses and are likely to make all the right moves coming to the world’s greatest horse race.