Saturday at Santa Anita, 3-year-old Omaha Beach won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship in thrilling fashion, closing along the inside under Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith to nail speedy and heavily-favored Shancelot on the money in 1:08 3/5. The victory was made even more exciting because Omaha Beach had been the Kentucky Derby morning line favorite before a throat issue forced him to be scratched May 1. Before Saturday, the colt had been away from afternoon action since April 13, when he won the Arkansas Derby by one length over Improbable and was nearly six lengths clear of Country House. That’s notable because Country House returned in his next start to win the Kentucky Derby, sort of, when Maximum Security was disqualified for interference.
Omaha Beach’s throat condition required surgery and post-operative complications extended his absence from what was supposed to be ‘day-to-day’ into months on ‘injured reserve.’ Back in training, Hall-of-Fame conditioner Richard Mandella originally pointed the colt toward a route race as a prep for a start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic November 2. However, a work didn’t go as planned and Mandella shifted sights toward the Santa Anita Sprint Championship instead.
As the scratched morning-line Kentucky Derby favorite, Omaha Beach’s long road to recovery attracted intense interest. Because this year’s sophomore crop still lacks a true superstar, fans anxiously anticipated Omaha Beach’s return and hoped that the colt would fill the void atop racing’s glamour-boy division.
When he hit the finish first on Saturday in such a game performance, pent-up fan frustration that had been building since spring was released in the form of plaudits and superlatives. Not unaffected was Santa Anita race caller Frank Mirahmadi who, at the thrilling conclusion, called Omaha Beach the winner and then exclaimed, “What a training job by Richard Mandella as he wins the Santa Anita Sprint Championship!”
Mirahmadi’s enthusiasm was understandable, but it’s rare for a track announcer to mention a trainer’s name in a race call, unless the event is a notable achievement like a milestone victory. But Mirahmadi’s enthusiasm, in a way, was representative of what racing fans everywhere felt. Gone six months and forced to overcome an assortment of setbacks, all credit to the colt and to Mandella that the horse could return and immediately defeat such a swift, formidable foe as Shancelot—winner of three of four starts—in very fast time over a deep and tiring racetrack.
After the race, the requisite ‘What’s next?’ question didn’t have a simple answer. And not only because winning connections first wanted to sip champagne and ‘just enjoy this one.’ No, this time there’s a real dilemma about where to run Omaha Beach next. Clearly, that will be in a Breeders’ Cup race. The tricky part is in which race?
Omaha Beach has just won a Grade 1 six-furlong sprint in 1:08 3/5—at the exact distance and over the identical surface as the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Why not wheel him right back in that race? Duh! Makes sense, no? Does to Mandella. It’s the race he mentioned Monday on Sirius’ At the Races with Steve Byk broadcast as the most likely target. But Mandella also left the door open to other options. After all, Omaha Beach is a 3-year-old and, hopefully, will race next year. With better luck and health, he then can properly be pointed toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic. No need to immediately rush him into such a demanding race right now. Makes sense.
But what about the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile? I kid you not. That’s this year’s sponsored handle for the race we’ve previously known as the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Trust me, Big Ass Fans is an actual company that makes large fans and not a snide reference to the size of racegoer rear-ends. So, what about the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile as a potential next start for Omaha Beach? Anticipated competition seems a bit less fierce in the Dirt Mile than it does in the Sprint. Mitole and Catalina Cruiser appear most dangerous foes. The former is a very fast sprinter trying two turns for the first time and the latter is a winner of 7 of 8 lifetime starts—his only loss came in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. One negative to running in the Dirt Mile is that the purse is ‘only’ $1 million as compared to $2 million for the Sprint and $6 million for the Classic. I know money isn’t everything, but when you’re talking millions it’s at least something.
The other thing that’s ‘something’ is which color Eclipse Award statue might await Omaha Beach in Hallandale Beach in January. Horse of the Year trophies are gold, the rest are not. Sophomore honors really hinge on what Code of Honor does in the Classic. That’s an Eclipse Award ‘Win and You’re In’ race for him, no matter what Omaha Beach does in either the Sprint or Mile. However, if Code of Honor misfires in the Classic and Omaha Beach wins a BC event, then the son of War Front could snatch the 3-year-old crown. Connections of Maximum Security, divisional leader in the clubhouse with a tenuous one-stroke lead, can merely watch as their colt’s two closest pursuers line up makeable eagle putts.
Or, how about this scenario? Distaff probable favorite Midnight Bisou and Mile/Turf star Bricks and Mortar, both unbeaten in 2019 and candidates for Horse of the Year honors, each lose respective BC races while Omaha Beach wins the BC Classic. Is there a chance then that the Fox Hill Farms’ colt could take home gold?
One thing is certain: Mandella will make a studied and wise decision. He’s a conservative guy who does what’s best for his horse without exception and he’s an expert at pointing horses toward specific races; in the mold of fellow California training legend Charlie Whittingham. Mandella is the only conditioner ever to win four Breeders’ Cup races in a single day! For a moment, let that sink in—a BC four-bagger! Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies, Action This Day in the Juvenile, Johar in a Turf dead-heat and Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic.
Oh, and by the way, races that day were at Santa Anita.
From a sharp horseplayer’s point of view, all of this Omaha Beach hubbub has to stir contrarian emotions. Because of the hype, Omaha Beach will be over-bet no matter where he appears on the BC card. That will tempt serious players to look elsewhere for value and to ask if there’s a legitimate gambling case to be made against racing’s newest, hottest celebrity?
For example, if Omaha Beach is so great, why did it take him 5 races to break his maiden? Top horses usually win first or second time out. Was his huge Santa Anita Sprint Championship effort off a 6-month layoff too strong to be repeated? Was Shancelot still feeling the effects of his watch-busting, track-record shattering, July Saratoga performance? And how will Omaha Beach perform against several talented older runners instead of just one sharp fellow 3-year-old in Shancelot?
Yes, this is the curious case of Omaha Beach. Can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
There were other races with BC implications over the weekend. Here’s one man’s view of them.
Friday, Oct. 4
Grade 2 Stoll Ogden Phoenix -3-Year-Olds and Up - Six Furlongs
Engage parlayed victory in the $100k Bensalem at Parx into a Grade 2 Keeneland score. It was the 4-year-old colt’s second win in as many starts this year since changing barns from Chad Brown to Steve Asmussen. Perhaps he’s back on track at 4, after showing promise at 2 when he won the Grade 3 Futurity at Belmont in his third start. Whitmore broke last in the field and closed well on the outside but too late. Promises Fulfilled was a disappointment. Lexitonian, sophomore winner of Pimlico’s Chick Lang held third. It seemed like this race, overall, was a bit of a disappointment. There are better sprinters headed to Santa Anita.
Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades – 2-Year-Old Fillies - One Mile and One-Sixteenth
British Idiom made it 2-for-2 in career wins when she stretched out from a six-furlong Saratoga maiden score to convincingly take the Alcibiades. The daughter of Flashback raced with Lasix for the first time and approaches Santa Anita in fine shape. She’s got a fabulous stride that goes from here to there. She was a bit rank early, but she’s inexperienced and, hopefully, will learn. Trainer Brad Cox has had a strong season, so it could be his time.
Saturday, Oct. 5
Grade 2 Woodford Stakes – 3-Year-Olds and Up - Five and One-Half Furlongs Turf
Stubbins, a 3-year-old Doug O’Neill-trained California invader who has now won 4 of 8 starts this year including 2 over the now shuttered Santa Anita hillside turf course, and jockey Joel Rosario had to shove their way clear in the stretch to win the Woodford. And they had a good trip! Extravagant Kid, a 6-year-old pro with 11 wins in 37 starts had nowhere to go for a long time in the stretch and his race can be thrown out. Imprimis, a 5-year-old winner of 7 of 12 starts, also had nowhere to run through the lane. Leinster, a 4-year-old 3 for 3 at the distance and 1-1 over Keeneland turf before the race, finished a solid second.
Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America –Fillies & Mares - Six Furlongs
Spiced Perfection, a 4-year-old California-bred filly, broke very awkwardly and last in the field of 9, rode the rail under patient handling by jockey Javier Castellano, gamely split horses in the stretch and won this race convincingly. Dawn the Destroyer finished late outside for second, but none of the others in the race fired best shots.
Grade 1 First Lady – Fillies & Mares - One Mile Turf
Uni is a 5-year-old mare is named either after a sushi dish (sea urchin) or what they call college in the UK (University). Trevor Denman labelled her ‘You-Knee’ at Del Mar, but she’s also been introduced as ‘Ooo-knee’ elsewhere. By either name, she’s in great form right now! She absolutely exploded in the stretch to win the First Lady and probably is headed toward meeting males in the BC Mile. She got a decent pace to chase, but she looked fabulous drawing away from runner-up Juliet Foxtrot. Chad Brown’s other entrant Rushing Fall didn’t fire. Males will be a bigger challenge for Uni, but she’s got some positives: females have done well in the Mile, she’s trained by Chad Brown, she’s sharp, has won 9 of 17 and will be a decent price. Stay tuned.
Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity – 2-Year-Olds - One Mile and One-Sixteenth
Maxfield, an unbeaten 2-year-old son of Street Sense who won a one-turn mile first out at Churchill Downs in September, now has a two-turn mile and one-sixteenth score to his credit. He made a huge move from last to reach contention and then drew away in the stretch. His run was almost too impressive, though. Comparisons to exhilarating BC Juvenile winner Azeri have been made but that’s a bit of a reach. There just may not have been a lot of talent behind Maxfield Saturday. Dennis’ Moment and Eight Rings loom as the ones to beat in the BC Juvenile and if this guy can repeat this effort, he’ll join them. Situation demands further review.
Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile – 3-Year-Olds and Up - One Mile Turf
Bowies Hero, another California turf invader, claimed top prize in the Shadwell at a decent price. One win out of four starts this year--in the Grade 2, Eddie Read at mile and one-eighth at Del Mar--left this guy cool on the board. The red-hot combination of trainer Phil D’Amato and jockey Flavien Prat warmed things up. In the past, Bowies Hero has had his moments—he won the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe at Santa Anita last season and was third in the Grade 1 Shoemaker there, too. Would be surprised, but not shocked if this guy fired well in the BC Mile. At least we know he likes the layout.
Sunday, October 6
Indian Summer – 2-Year-Olds – Five and One-Half Furlongs Turf
Wesley Ward-trained Kimari rallied from far back to win this $200k stakes race. Plenty of speed was signed on and they moved along up front to set up the winner’s closing charge.
Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon – 2-Year-Olds - One Mile and One Sixteenth Turf
Peace Achieved continued to dominate turf foes in here, following a 6 ¾ maiden triumph at Ellis and a 2 ½-length $500k stakes scamper at Kentucky Downs. Both wins were accomplished following the addition of blinkers by trainer Mark Casse. Vitalogy finished second in a good try after a very wide trip the entire way from post 13.
Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster – Fillies & Mares – One Mile and One-Eighth
Elate and Dunbar Road took all of the wagering money in here, but Blue Prize got the lion’s share of the purse money at a great 7-1 price. She was the defending Spinster champ but yielded popularity to Bill Mott’s 5-year-old Elate—two necks from being two-time winner of the Grade 1 Personal Ensign—and 3-year-old Dunbar Road—winner of four of five for trainer Chad Brown. Perhaps the low-profile combo of trainer Ignacio Correas and jockey Joe Bravo inflated the price. Blue Prize inexplicably ducked out a bit near the finish of the race, less severely than she did last year. Don’t know if ‘Prize can beat Midnight Bisou in the Distaff but she’s a sharp pro with a puncher’s chance.
Saturday, Oct. 5
Grade 3 Matron – Fillies 2-Years-Old – Six Furlongs Turf
Alms from off the pace was much the best of this group. She’s now unbeaten in two starts for trainer Michael Stidham. Time Limit, making her first start on turf, ran well and had a clear lead in the lane until Alms ran her down.
Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic – 3-Year-Olds & Upward – One Mile and One-Half Turf
US-based distance turf horses on both coasts have taken turns beating each other this year. Saturday was Arklow’s chance at the plate and he didn’t disappoint. He’s actually been knocking on the door all season, with three seconds (two by a neck) from five starts, but he put it all together on the Belmont lawn to take the Hirsch. Channel Maker, who prefers a bit of give in the ground ran too well to lose. Expect a few of these to return in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but that race often has gone to Europeans and this year should be more of the same.
Grade 1 Champagne – 2-Year-Olds – One Mile
While the Champagne is a one-turn mile and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile usually is a two-turn mile and one-sixteenth event, this race has been a reasonably good producer of Juvy winners with 9 overall. According to winning connections, this year’s Champagne winner won’t be heading west for Breeders’ Cup. Good thing, too. This is a strong year for 2-year-old colts and he’d likely get hot and dirty.
Sunday, Oct. 6
Grade 3 Futurity – 2-year-olds – Six Furlongs Turf
Favored Four Wheel Drive broke well, settled behind speedster Jack and Noah, took over when asked, drifted out through the stretch while clear. He was the best of this rather light bunch of just six runners. The 2-year-old son of American Pharoah won the $100k RosiesB Stakes in his initial start at Colonial Downs at five and one-half furlongs.
Grade 1 Flower Bowl – Fillies & Mares – One Mile and One Quarter
Peter Brant’s Sistercharlie continued her winning ways by notching her sixth consecutive Grade 1 Stakes victory and her seventh winning tally out of nine US starts. She’s an absolute pro with a closing style that was aided by the presence of stablemate and rabbit Thais, who set a solid early pace. Thais assumed her rabbit role in last year’s BC F&M Turf and Sistercharlie emerged victorious. It will be interesting to see who comes from Europe to face the defending champ who enters the ‘Cup 3-for-3 this year.
Grade 1 Frizette – 2-Year-Old Fillies – One Mile
Whicked Whisper, trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Joel Rosario, took the lead out of the gate in this one-turn mile, breezed along while carving out roughly 24-second quarters and came home clear. The 2-year-old filly brigade is not as strong as the males are this year, so Whisper might have a say come November 1. On the other hand, it’s doubtful she’ll be permitted to ‘walk the dog’ up front at Santa Anita. It should be noted that the Frizette has been the most productive Breeders’ Cup prep race with 12 graduates earning success on the big stage, including the past 2 winners.
Saturday, Oct. 5
Grade 2 City of Hope Mile – 3-Year-Olds and Up – One Mile Turf
True Valour rated kindly in fifth early beneath jockey Drayden Van Dyke, enjoyed a rail-skimming trip into the lane, angled out, found his feet and surged to get up in time as part of a blanket finish. The 5-year-old horse hadn’t started since Feb 9, for trainer Simon Callaghan. That was a winning effort also at a mile at Santa Anita. This was True Valour’s fifth US race and he was a Group 3 winner in his native Ireland as well as Group 2 placed there. There wasn’t much depth to this race, so it would be surprising to see a BC Mile winner emerge from this lot.
Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship – 3-Year-Olds and Up – Six Furlongs
See Omaha Beach Above
Sunday, Oct. 6
Zuma Beach – 2-Year-Olds – One Mile Turf
Hit the Road surprised most at $16.60 in his second turf start. He’s now unbeaten on the green. Don’t expect this event to have much of an effect on the BC Juvenile Turf because the Euros pretty much own that event. Encoder, previously unbeaten in two turf starts, finished fourth.
Speakeasy – 2-Year-Olds – Five Furlongs Turf
El Tigre Terrible had an absolute dream trip from behind, saved all the ground, got through inside and rallied between horses gamely late to just get up and win this race. This truly was a textbook ride by Rueben Fuentes. It was El Tigre Terrible’s first turf start and the son of Smiling Tiger couldn’t have been better for trainer Peter Miller. It’s difficult to imagine that this colt could get as perfect a trip in the BC Juvy Turf Sprint, but he likes the course.
Surfer Girl – 2-Year-Olds Fillies – One Mile Turf
Cal-Bred Warren’s Showtime pulled off a stunning $72 upset in the Surfer Girl and could be headed to the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf next. She’ll have her hooves full in that event, but she has a win over the course and that’s got to count for something.