John Clay

California loaded again for Kentucky Derby, including a trainer long overdue

Out of the Arkansas mud on Saturday came what will be the sentimental favorite, if not the favorite, for the Kentucky Derby on May 4.

That would be Richard Mandella, the 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer from California who has never come close to winning the Run for the Roses. In fact, Mandella has never even hit the board in his five tries the first Saturday in May, the best of his five starts coming when Soul of the Matter finished fifth in 1994.

But now, after having not saddled a Derby starter since 2004, Mandella has the likely Kentucky Derby favorite in Omaha Beach, thanks to the regally-bred son of War Front’s one-length victory over Improbable in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby over a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park.

It was the third consecutive win for Omaha Beach, and the second straight over a star from trainer Bob Baffert’s star-studded barn. Back on March 16, Omaha Beach edged last year’s 2-year-old champion Game Winner by a nose to win a division of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. Saturday, the Mandella trainee held on impressively in the stretch to outlast Improbable, who had finished second in his division of the Rebel.

Don’t worry, Baffert will still be well-represented in his bid to tie the legendary Ben Jones’ record of six Kentucky Derby victories by a trainer. Besides Game Winner and Improbable, Baffert will bring Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster to Louisville as he looks for his third Derby win in the last five years.

With Saturday being the final day of Kentucky Derby preps, Omaha Beach slid into second place behind Wood Memorial winner Tacitus on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard. Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma is third in the standings, followed by UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait, Roadster, Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards, Florida Derby winner Maximum Security, Game Winner, Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor and Gotham Stakes winner Haikal to round out the top 10.

The Derby is limited to 20 horses. One spot is being taken by Master Fencer, who received an invitation through Japan’s Road to the Derby program. The four horses who qualified through Europe’s Road to the Derby program all turned down invitations.

Mandella isn’t the only Hall of Famer with a legitimate shot at his first Derby victory. A winner of four straight, Tacitus is trained by Bill Mott, who is 0-for-7 in the world’s most famous race after finishing seventh last year with Hofburg. As was Hofburg, Tacitus is owned by Juddmonte Farms, which has just one Triple Crown win (Empire Maker in the 2003 Belmont) to its credit.

Meanwhile, Vekoma is trained by George Weaver, a longtime assistant under a pair of Derby-winning trainers, first D. Wayne Lukas and then Todd Pletcher, before going out on his own. Weaver has had just one Derby starter, Tencendur, who finished 17th in 2015, the Kentucky Derby won by eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who won the Arkansas Derby in his final Kentucky Derby prep.

In fact, two strong trends have emerged in the last few Derby runnings. Starting with Orb in 2013, the last six have been won by the betting favorite. Four of the last five have been won by California horses — California Chrome in 2014; American Pharoah in 2015; Nyquist in 2016 and Justify in 2018. The exception was Always Dreaming in 2017.

And California looks to be strong again this year thanks to Game Winner, Improbable, Roadster and Omaha Beach. In fact, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches for jockey Mike Smith, who rode Justify to the Triple Crown last year. This year, Smith must choose between Roadster and Omaha Beach. The jockey was on board for each in their final prep wins.

Said Smith on Saturday, “It’s a lovely decision to have.”

Kentucky Derby

Post position draw: 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 30

Post time for the race: 6:50 p.m. Saturday, May 4 (NBC-18)

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