LOUISVILLE — “How are you?” went the question at 7:44 a.m. Thursday.
The texture of the race set for Saturday at Churchill Downs didn’t change much when Mandella’s trainee, 4-1 favorite Omaha Beach, was scratched late Wednesday with an entrapped epiglottis, a condition that obstructs breathing. It went from wide open to wide open. It went from lacking any Tyrannosaurus rex entry to lacking any Tyrannosaurus rex entry.
What the Derby lost was maybe its best scratched entry since A.P. Indy in 1992 plus its narrative of utmost sentiment: the potential of a 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer (Mandella) and an accomplished 78-year-old owner (Rick Porter) to get their first Kentucky Derby win.
Instead, Mandella waited for veterinary confirmation Wednesday, then went to his hotel room, then attempted to reassemble shattered thoughts, then joshed Thursday about having his wife tie him to the bed so he wouldn’t jump out the window. Instead, Omaha Beach, who looked enviably swell Thursday morning — “If you didn’t look up his nose with a scope you wouldn’t know anything’s wrong,” Mandella said — left Barn 28 for Lexington one hour east, for a surgery often taken while standing on all fours.
Instead, Mandella and veterinarian Foster Northrop appeared Thursday morning on the wrong side of the gigantic track, distantly opposite the barns, at a news conference that delighted nobody.
Mandella had gone from the largest hope of a 45-year career to the largest disappointment, right after his horse coughed Wednesday during a workout. “It just seemed like everything was so in line,” Mandella said. “In fact, I actually had a thought: Is this too perfect? Because nothing’s that perfect. But it was very devastating. . . . It’s the Kentucky Derby. Came flying in here like we had it written on us, and it didn’t work. So [91-year-old trainer] Mel Stute said it best when he was interviewed about the Derby or whatever it was, and he said: ‘I’ve got a lot of experience with disappointments. This game’ll do it to you.’ ”
The timing of the diagnosis — and two-week recovery period from minor surgery — heaped another cruelty onto the pile. Had Omaha Beach gotten the diagnosis some weeks back, his epiglottis could have proved both repaired and irrelevant. That was the case with Alysheba, who underwent surgery for an entrapped epiglottis in March 1987 and went on to win that year’s Derby.
Further cruelties: Omaha Beach figures to return with the stoutness that won him the Arkansas Derby and with the kindness that Mandella values and with the oomph that makes Mandella marvel that the horse trains like Muhammad Ali entering a ring . . . but only after the Triple Crown has passed. And so Mandella on Thursday ruled out Omaha Beach from the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in addition to the Derby.
Mandella, who once won four races in one Breeders’ Cup (2003), had not brought a Derby entry since 2004. He had brought six all-time without finishing better than fifth (Soul of the Matter, 1994). Porter, who had the 2011 horse of the year with Havre de Grace, had finished second here in 2007 with Hard Spun and second in 2008 with Eight Belles and with untold agony from her death from two broken forelegs and a breakdown after the wire.
Still more: Omaha Beach has excelled in slop.
“He’s finally like: ‘I see what you go for. I finally have a horse,’ ” said trainer Bob Baffert, a five-time Derby winner. “There’s nothing like coming to the Derby when you have a legitimate chance to win it. And when you have that chance and then all of a sudden [the] rug is just pulled out from under you, it’s a tough feeling. But at least it’s not — you know, the horse is going to be okay.”
“But I had a nice message from Arthur Hancock yesterday,” Mandella said, referring to the two-time Derby-winning owner, “and he said, ‘Richard, [Charlie] Whittingham was 73 when he won his first one [with Ferdinand in 1986].’ So who am I to think I should be doing this now?” For further consolation, he said he would have felt worse had the problem gone undetected only to show up during the Derby.
“Again, our players can’t talk to us,” he said. “We have to use instincts, little signs that we see, hopefully a veterinarian that knows something, and occasionally, things get past us, but we all do the best we can. But it means the world to us, what our horses’ condition is.”
It all left Mike Smith, who rode Justify to a Triple Crown last year, without a mount. Smith had switched off Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby-winning Roadster to Omaha Beach, and Baffert stuck by Florent Geroux on Roadster, even after Geroux fielded a call from Baffert and guessed a sacking was nigh. It also left Baffert, his dominance screaming with two Triple Crown sweeps in the past four springs, with the top three horses in the race, per Mike Battaglia’s odds: Game Winner (updated to 9-2), Roadster (5-1) and Improbable (5-1).
“I don’t think there’s a really heavy-duty favorite now,” Baffert said. “They were all so close. I keep looking at all the numbers. I mean, we all run the same! . . . So I think Maximum Security [now 8-1], I think he should be the favorite. I think he’s a horse that nobody’s talking about. And that’s the horse that I’m worried about. You know, he’s a good horse. He won the Florida Derby, and he’s run faster than we have. You need to be at his barn, talking to him.”
That may wind up true, even if the real education of this 145th Derby would be at Barn 28.