Richard Mandella owns a spot in Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. At the induction ceremony back in 2001, the legendary Allen Jerkens introduced the then 50-year-old conditioner whose career began in 1974.
Mandella won four Breeders’ Cup races in 2003 at Santa Anita Park, back when racing’s championship day only consisted of eight races on one day.
He trained four-time Eclipse Award winner Beholder to 18 victories and earnings of more than $6.1 million over her five seasons. He also trained champions Kotashaan, Phone Chatter, Halfbridled and Action This Day, along with major stakes winners Pleasantly Perfect, The Tin Man, Dare And Go, Gentlemen, Malek, Rock Hard Ten and Siphon.
Eighteen times since 2000 Mandella finished in the top 100 ranking of trainers by earnings in North America, going as high as fourth in 2003, the same year he won Breeders’ Cup races with Pleasantly Perfect, Johar, Action This Day and Halfbridled.
Lest we forget, he’s as good a deadpan jokester as he is a horse trainer. Considering the above accomplishments, and more, that’s saying something.
Saturday at Churchill Downs, Mandella will try for his first classic victory in a race he’s only participated in five times. Omaha Beach, the morning-line favorite for the 145th Kentucky Derby, gives Mandella his best chance in America’s greatest race and the way the son of War Front comes in gives him even more confidence.
It’s either that or Kentucky’s signature spirit.
“Whiskey,” Mandella said Monday morning when asked how he’s handling the hype leading up to the Derby. “A big bottle of whiskey.”
Mandella showed up at Barn 28 the early part of his Derby Week a little too bright-eyed and chipper for that to be entirely believable. So perhaps it’s keeping tabs on things back in California and that Omaha Beach continues to impress in his morning training in Kentucky that play a role in Mandella beating the drum that “everybody’s happy.”
“I’m lucky I’ve got 39 others back at Santa Anita, to worry about (and) keep up with what they’re doing,” he said, adding that he’s getting ample rest in Louisville. “Some nights. In my business it comes with the territory. As long as you have a barn full of horses and some of them are pretty good, every night doesn’t go the same.”
Omaha Beach seems to be thriving since arriving in Kentucky last week. He breezed 5 furlongs in :59 in his final serious Derby work, the second fastest of 43 at the distance April 27, and makes his gallops look easy during the designated daily training period for Oaks and Derby horses.
Longtime Churchill Downs’ oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, who has set the line for the Derby since 1976, pegged Omaha Beach as the 4-1 favorite during Tuesday’s post-position draw for Saturday’s $3 million event. He and jockey Mike Smith are favored over Game Winner and Improbable, two of his beaten rivals in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, respectively, at Oaklawn Park, and the 17 others entered.
The Rebel and Arkansas Derby wins came after Omaha Beach broke his maiden by 9 lengths going 7 furlongs Feb. 2 at Santa Anita. He finished second in his only other start in 2019, a 1-mile maiden Jan. 4 at Santa Anita after going winless in three starts as a 2-year-old. Each of the juvenile starts came on turf.
“He’s laid back when he needs to be, but he also wakes up when he needs to,” Mandella said. “He’s such a kind, sweet horse that I think it took a few races to bring that out in him. He just thought he was out there for morning exercise the first few times. The really good ones do that. The scared nervous ones give you the first works that are quick quarters and eighths, because they’re scared. My really good horses kind of stumbled along at those, then when once they get a couple three-eighths they’ve kind of figured it out and start showing something because they have the class that brought it out.
“It seemed to go well on the turf but he didn’t win. Like I was saying, after his first and second race, then his works on the dirt really became serious, he understood what we were looking at and we could see, it’s time to stop fooling with this grass stuff and let’s go (to the dirt).”
Mandella is back at the Derby for the first time since 2004, when he sent out Action This Day to a sixth and Minister Eric to a 16th in Smarty Jones’ unbeaten run in the mud. The best finish for the Hall of Famer came in 1994 with Soul Of The Matter, who finished fifth in Go For Gin’s victory, while the others Bedouin (15th in 1984), Afternoon Deelites (eighth in 1995) and Desert Hero (13th in 1999) didn’t factor.
Mandella will run Omaha Beach for owner Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, which has a good record in four Derby appearances despite not winning. Porter’s Hard Spun finished second in 2007 and the ill-fated filly Eight Belles also finished second in 2008. Fox Hill’s most recent Derby starter, Normandy Invasion, finished fourth in 2013.
Smith bids for back-to-back victories in the Derby after winning with eventual Triple Crown winner Justify last year. Smith also won in 2005 aboard Giacomo and chose Omaha Beach over the Bob Baffert-trained Roadster, with whom he won the Santa Anita Derby.
Mandella got word from Smith not long after the Arkansas Derby, a 1-length victory over the Baffert-trained Improbable, that he’d stay on for the Kentucky Derby. Flavien Prat, who rides longshot Arkansas Derby third Country House from post 20 for Bill Mott, rode Omaha Beach in his first five starts.
“I didn’t know,” Mandella said. “Bob Baffert has had him on some great horses. More than I have. I simply sent him a message, ‘Take a few days and let me know where you’re at.’ I would have had no problems going back to Flavien Prat, who I think the world of … I had no second thoughts of using him.
“Having Mike Smith and his experience and my lack of success (and) experience in the Derby, I need him.”