Porter would say Mandella, the affable 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer with the twinkle in his eye and most every piece of horse racing hardware in his trophy case. Except one. The Kentucky Derby.
Mandella would say Porter, the longtime Thoroughbred owner who after a two-year fight with cancer is back in the game in which he has won a host of big races. Except one. The Kentucky Derby.
“He wants it bad, believe me,” Porter said Thursday of Mandella.
“What a great thing,” Mandella said Friday of Porter.
Now here they are with the probable favorite for the 145th Kentucky Derby in Omaha Beach. Porter is the owner. Mandella is the trainer. Opportunity knocks. Two with the dream of one, trying to get to the same place at the same time.
Start with Porter, who grew up going to Delaware Park and bought his first racehorse in 1994. He won his first Breeders’ Cup race in 2006 with Round Pound. He entered his first Derby in 2007 with Hard Spun, who finished second for trainer Larry Jones. A year later, Porter and Jones finished second again, but tragically when the filly Eight Belles was put down after taking a bad step past the finish line.
“You never forget it,” said Porter, “but you can’t think about it.”
After winning Horse of the Year with Havre de Grace in 2011, Porter was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. He was too sick to buy horses. Then, after undergoing an experimental treatment, with the help of fellow owner B. Wayne Hughes, Porter’s cancer went into remission.
He resumed buying yearlings in 2017. One was a son of War Front who had failed to reach his $625,000 reserve at the Keeneland September sale. But Larry Jones, who had picked out Hard Spun for Porter, liked the colt. Mandella liked him, too. When veterinarian Larry Bramlage told Porter an injury issue would heal, Porter made the purchase privately.
Instead of sending Omaha Beach to Jones, however, Porter shipped him to Mandella in California. War Front is known for producing excellent grass horses, so Mandella put Omaha Beach on the turf. He ran third his first try, then second each of his next two races.
“I asked if we could run him on the dirt, because he was training so well,” Porter said. “We got him on the dirt and he just seems to be getting better and better with every race.”
After finishing second in his dirt debut, Omaha Beach finally broke his maiden Feb. 2 at Santa Anita with a nine-length win. A month later, he won a division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes, beating Bob Baffert’s Game Winner, last year’s 2-year-old champion.
“(Baffert) has been giving me Derby lessons for a couple of years now — until the Rebel,” joked Mandella of the five-time Derby winner. “Then he started throwing me some curveballs, and I went to (four-time winner) Wayne Lukas.”
Not that Mandella needs an equine education. The son of a blacksmith, he was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2001. He won a record four Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita in 2003. Meanwhile, the Derby has been a mystery. In six tries, his best finish was fifth with Burt Bacharach’s Soul of the Matter in 1994. He hasn’t been back since 2004 when Action This Day ran sixth and Minister Eric 16th.
Fifteen years later, Omaha Beach beat Baffert’s Improbable in the Arkansas Derby and suddenly Mandella figures to be the bettors’ choice to win the roses. “He’s just a sweet, kind horse,” said Mandella. “I think it took a few races to make a man out of him. He is now.”
So how much does Mandella want to win the Kentucky Derby?
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he joked Friday before turning serious. “You all know this is what we grew up wanting to do, no matter what part of this sport you’re in. It’s something you always want to do. I would surely like to do it.”
To be sure, he would like to do it for Porter.
“He’s a warrior,” Mandella said. “So far, we’ve had a lot of fun with this.”
It would be even more fun to be in that winner’s circle Saturday.
“This might be my last shot,” Porter said. “But we’re both virgins, so hopefully this will take care of both of us.”
145th Kentucky Derby
When: 6:50 p.m. Saturday
Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville
Purse: $3 million (Grade 1)
Distance: 1 1/4 miles (dirt)
Post-position draw: 11 a.m. Tuesday