By J.J. Hysell
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella is an industry legend with nine Breeders’ Cup wins, and he has managed such greats as four-time Eclipse Award-winner Beholder and 2003 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect.
The coveted Kentucky Derby win, however, still eludes the 68-year-old California native. He was hoping that would change Saturday with his entrant this year, Omaha Beach, entering the week as the favorite to win the 145th running of the Run for the Roses.
Now, following a diagnosis of entrapped epiglottis, the 3-year-old colt will scratch from the race, leaving the field in the hands of five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. Baffert has three entries in this year’s edition: Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster, Arkansas Derby runner-up Improbable and new favorite Game Winner, who was victorious in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in November.
Omaha Beach was supposed to be Mandella’s first Derby starter in 15 years, and his most formidable contender. The strapping colt had flourished since switching from turf to dirt to begin his 3-year-old campaign, nosing out Game Winner in a division of the Rebel Stakes and beating Improbable by a length over a sloppy track in the Arkansas Derby. Now, we’ll have to wait to see him hopefully run in one of the next legs of the Triple Crown.
Roadster, with jockey Florent Geroux aboard, topped most early Derby lists until a disappointing third in the Del Mar Futurity in September. After throat surgery and some time off, the son of Quality Road bounced back to win an allowance race and the Santa Anita Derby, in which he showed a new dimension by coming from far off the pace to defeat stablemate Game Winner.
After an undefeated 2-year-old season, Game Winner has posted two solid second-place efforts prepping for the first Saturday in May. Unlike most of his top competitors, he has not won beyond 1 1/16-miles, and the added distance appears daunting for the bay colt.
Improbable, whose last win was the Los Alamitos Futurity in December, has not finished worse than second in five starts but also faces the endurance question. The flashy chestnut colt does boast a sharp win over the Churchill Downs surface – the Street Sense Stakes last November – and his affinity for the track has shown during pre-Derby training.
Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards has been the talk of the backstretch in the weeks leading up to the race. On paper, the Bret Calhoun trainee appears an outsider, with the pedigree of a miler and only one stakes win to his credit. But the versatile runner has turned heads with his standout appearance during morning gallops.
Master Fencer, 50-1, is set to be the first horse bred in Japan to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Trained by former jockey Koichi Tsunoda, the great-grandson of 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence wields one advantage over his foes: he’s raced twice at about 10 furlongs on turf and fared well, proving his stamina.
Athletic Lecomte and Risen Star Stakes winner War of Will is overlooked because of a ninth-place finish after a troubled start in the Louisiana Derby. His outstanding training since – three “bullet” works (the fastest at that distance for that day) – drew confidence from trainer Mark Casse, but War of Will was dealt the dreaded No. 1 post. The last winner from the rail was Ferdinand in 1986. Look for jockey Tyler Gaffalione to push War of Will early, possibly to the lead.
Also likely to be part of the early pace is undefeated Maximum Security, the Florida Derby winner who hasn’t been challenged in four races. He’s the most likely in the field to pull off a wire-to-wire win.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, also seeking his first Kentucky Derby trophy, sends out the duo of tactical Tacitus – Wood Memorial winner and a son of top sire Tapit – and stakes-placed closer Country House, who will break from post 20.
Likely coming from off the pace will be Win Win Win, another closer with a Derby-dotted pedigree that features Sunday Silence and 2004 winner Smarty Jones.
Jockey Jon Court, 58, will be the oldest rider to compete in the Kentucky Derby when he guides four-race winner Long Range Toddy for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Another longshot to watch is Fountain of Youth victor Code of Honor, trained by Shug McGaughey – who won the 2013 edition with Orb – and piloted by two-time Derby winner John Velazquez.
Normally in the limelight, two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher has had a quiet Derby lead-up with two off-the-radar entries: lightly-raced Spinoff, seeking his first stakes win, and Sunland Derby winner Cutting Humor.
Wood Memorial runner-up Tax has performed well in three 1 ⅛-mile races and has the ultimate long-distance pedigree. The gelding could be forced to show early speed to avoid being squeezed in the shuffle embarking from post 2.
Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma, UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait, Gotham Stakes winner Haikal and UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician round out the field. Post time is 6:50 p.m. ET.