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Kentucky Derby trainers ponder wide-open field without scratched favorite Omaha Beach

The timing was the thing Richard Mandella could not get past.

Why couldn’t Omaha Beach, the best horse the Hall of Fame trainer has ever brought to the Kentucky Derby, have coughed a month ago or two months from now? Why did the colt’s entrapped epiglottis have to manifest three days before he was to go off as the favorite in the most coveted race on the American calendar?

“It’s not that big a deal,” Mandella said Thursday morning, about 14 hours after the news broke that his Derby favorite would not run Saturday. “But it’s a big deal this weekend.”

He expected the colt to have minor surgery Thursday afternoon and resume training in two or three weeks, just long enough to knock Omaha Beach out of the entire Triple Crown series.

Trainers of the other top Derby contenders could only commiserate, even as they acknowledged their good fortune at not having to beat a worthy favorite.

“I just had a sickening feeling in my stomach,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who now has the top three choices in the morning line for Saturday’s race. “I just felt really bad for Richard Mandella. He’s a friend. He’s stabled next to me [at Santa Anita Park]. And he was just so excited about this horse. … There’s nothing like coming to the Derby when you have a legitimate chance to win it. And when you have that chance and all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under you, it’s a tough feeling.”

Baffert said Omaha Beach’s jockey, Mike Smith, called him with the news on Wednesday afternoon. Smith chose to ride Mandella’s horse over Baffert’s contender, Roadster. But the two men share a deep history, which climaxed when Smith rode Justify to the Triple Crown last year.

Baffert was asked if he’d considered putting the newly available Smith back on Roadster, but he said he was sticking with Florent Geroux.

Bill Mott, who trains 8-1 fourth choice Tacitus, knows the feeling of assembling a Hall of Fame career with no Derby victory to top it off.

“I felt horrible for Mandella,” he said. “I know what it’s like to try to get here. I know how difficult it is. I know you can get a horse here but then to get the right horse … it looked like he might’ve had one. Am I disappointed to not have to outrun Omaha Beach? No, but there’s more to it than that. None of us have that many opportunities to get here, especially with a really top horse.”

Every top trainer, it seems, has a collection of war stories about gifted horses derailed by ill-timed maladies.

“I feel for Richard,” said trainer Mark Casse, who’ll saddle War of Will for the Derby. “It’s a tough, tough game. I can relate. We had Classic Empire favored for the Belmont a few years ago, and we had to scratch him. It’s such a long road, and to go so far and have the rug pulled, it’s tough. … We don’t mind the lesser competition, but it’s not the way you want to win.”

Baffert said it’s hard to describe the stress of trying to get a great horse to the starting gate in a big race. And there’s nothing worse than having to call an owner with dispiriting medical news.

“It’s something about racing; that’s why I’m always on pins and needles,” he said. “We know everything that can go wrong. Every day, we’re just waiting it out until I get the saddle on and get the rider on that horse. That’s the only time I can relax.”

Omaha Beach’s scratch ended a long string of good luck for Derby favorites, who had won the race six years in a row. The last morning-line favorite to scratch was I Want Revenge in 2009. He dropped out of the field on race day because of a problem with his left front ankle, clearing the way for Calvin Borel to ride 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird to victory over a muddy track.

Rival trainers did not forecast that wild a scenario in the wake of Omaha Beach’s scratch. But they did say it added further uncertainty to a race that was already difficult to handicap.

There’s not much to separate the resumes, statistical or otherwise, of the top five remaining choices in the morning line: Game Winner, Roadster, Improbable, Tacitus and Maximum Security.

Baffert tried to decline the favorite’s hat, even though he wore it to good effect with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year. “I think everybody’s trying to jinx me,” he said. “I think I’ve got three good horses, but it’s still a very wide-open race. You know, there’s 10 horses within a length of each other. … I keep looking at all the numbers, and they’ve all run the same.”

He was alluding to Beyer Speed Figures, which account for track and race conditions in an attempt to normalize each horse’s performance. The most recent figures for this year’s contenders are tightly clumped between 97 and 99, with Maximum Security’s 101 in the Florida Derby the lone outlier.

“I’d say he should be the favorite,” Baffert said of the Jason Servis-trained contender. “He’s the horse nobody’s talking about, but that’s a horse I’m worried about. He’s run faster than we have. You need to be at his barn.”

With so little differentiating the talents of the top contenders, racing luck will loom that much larger, especially with forecasts calling for another rainy Derby Day.

“I think even with Omaha Beach in it, I’ve said all along that this was going to be about trips,” Casse said.

Omaha Beach looked none the worse for wear Thursday as Mandella patted him in his stall. He had galloped well the day before, which made his fate all the more maddening.

His owner, Rick Porter, said the colt’s throat was inflamed last week but that he seemed to be recovering well after he was treated with antibiotics. Porter and Mandella entered Omaha Beach in the Derby anyway, hoping he’d get past the condition without surgery. Instead, Mandella said, his discomfort returned “with a vengeance” Wednesday.

The trainer retained his usual calm as he accepted condolences on the backside. “It was a little tougher last night,” he said.

“I’d say yes,” Mandella replied when asked if this was the greatest disappointment of his long career. “And I guess it's because the Derby is what it is. And this horse, if you all had been around the barn, you can see how special he is. It just seemed like everything was so in line. In fact, I actually had a thought, is this too perfect? Because nothing’s that perfect. And we found out what wasn’t.”

The misfortune did not rob him of his dry sense of humor. “My wife has a little bucket,” he said as he concluded his remarks. “She’ll be walking around if you want to throw something in there to help us get home.”

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