Sidelines with John Clay

So close to a high, Omaha Beach’s connections suffer a crushing low

Wednesday night we got another example of why they say horse racing can break your heart.

Three days before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Richard Mandella informed Churchill Downs that Omaha Beach, the morning-line favorite, was being scratched from the 145th running after being diagnosed with an entrapped epiglottis, an abnormality to the horse’s airway.

“After training this morning we noticed him cough a few times,” Mandella told Churchill Downs. “It caused us to scope him and we found an entrapped epiglottis. We can’t fix it this week so we’ll have to have a procedure done in a few days and probably be out of training for three weeks. We’ll have to figure out a whole new game plan.”

After starting out the son of War Front on turf, Mandella switched Omaha Beach to dirt, where’s he won three of four races, including his last three. Omaha Beach won a division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn before winning the Arkansas Derby on April 13. Thanks to those two wins, Churchill oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made Omaha Beach the 4-1 favorite after the colt drew the No. 12 post position on Tuesday.

Just Sunday, I wrote about how Omaha Beach could be the first Kentucky Derby winner for Mandella, a Hall of Fame trainer, and owner Rick Porter, who returned to the game after a two-year battle with cancer. When his cancer went into remission, Porter began purchasing yearlings again in 2017. One of those yearlings was Omaha Beach.

This is also a tough break for jockey Mike Smith, who chose Omaha Beach over Roadster, the Bob Baffert-trained colt Smith rode to victory in the Santa Anita Derby. Omaha Beach’s defection leaves Smith without a mount a year after the jockey guided Justify to the Triple Crown.

Known as one of the good guys in the game, the 68-year-old Mandella is 0-for-6 in the Derby. His best finish came in 1994 with Soul of the Matter, who ran fifth. He has not had a Derby horse since 2004 when Action This Day ran sixth and Minister Eric finished 16th.

This looked like it could finally be the year Mandella would experience the high of bringing home the roses. Instead, three days before the race, he’s experiencing one of the game’s lows.

“It’s a devastating thing,” Mandella told the Associated Press, “but we have to do what’s right for the horse.”

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