It’s one of the best weeks of the year: the week before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Each year historical stories grow older, and are remembered more fondly. Each year the players (for the most part) get younger, each one burning to make a mark in one of the sport’s most important races.
Railbirds on the backstretch in the morning, us included, watch the top 3-year-olds in training—colts and fillies—gallop on the main track as they approach the most important race of their early careers. Churchill Downs’ new training slot for horses for the Derby and Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), starting at 7:30 each morning, goes by in a blur of yellow and pink saddle towels.
We strain to see which horse’s coat sports those big spring dapples; we watch their body language on the track—the way they carry themselves on their way to and from the barn area—and look for subtle hints as to how they might perform a few days later.
We want to see, what my old friend and astute Derby handicapper John Mahan used to say, who will get all the Gouda.
However, this week, it was more than a strong gallop that helped separate some wheat from the chaff in Derby 145. It was the reaction April 27 of trainer Richard Mandella after early Derby favorite Omaha Beach put in his final work of :59 flat for five furlongs. While the horse looked spectacular on the track, his trainer looked as if he might combust while in front of a few microphones.
“Since the Rebel Stakes (G2) he just continues to grow and fill out,” Mandella began. “I’ve never seen a 3-year-old this good at this time of the year in my barn develop like this. I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got.
“Watch his work today…and all of his works. He’s very happy to do whatever we ask him to do.”
When asked what his horse’s greatest asset was, Mandella said: “He can run, period. He has a great mind. You’ve seen him walking around here…he did that work and walked off the track like he didn’t do anything. He’s got everything he needs.”
Mandella’s words were strong, but his body English was even stronger. The veteran 68-year-old trainer’s voice had a certainty to it. He smiled. He was smug. He was…confident.
Mandella’s Hall of Fame career has come without success in the classics. Omaha Beach will be only his seventh Derby starter and first since 2004 when he saddled Action This Day (sixth) and Minister Eric (16th). He hasn’t come back because he hasn’t had the right horse. The fact he’s been in Louisville with Omaha Beach since before Easter Sunday gives us more reason to believe he really, really likes his chances.
Mandella’s actions immediately bring to mind the run-up to the 1989 Kentucky Derby when Charlie Whittingham brought Sunday Silence to Churchill Downs. Whittingham’s body English in the chill of that spring tipped his hand following Sunday Silence’s half-mile blowout in :46 3/5 on May 4.
Daily Racing Form’s Jay Hovdey wrote the definitive “Whittingham: The Story of a Thoroughbred Racing Legend,” published by The Blood-Horse in 1993. His take on the workout:
“Whittingham clicked off his stopwatch, glanced down, then wandered off a few steps as Sunday Silence glided to a stop around the clubhouse turn. Charlie’s mind was whirring. The equation was becoming crystal clear. Nearby, (co-breeder/co-owner Arthur) Hancock waited anxiously for Whittingham’s evaluation of the work. Just right? A bit too fast? C’mon Charlie, what’s the word?
“ ‘We will get the money.’
“Hancock blinked hard against the chilly wind and started at his partner. ‘What are you saying, Charlie? How can you—’
“ ‘My boy’—Whittingham had that twinkle in his eye—‘we will GET the money.’ ”
And get the money they did.
Mandella had that same twinkle a week out from the Derby. His horse, owned by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms, has the look.
We’ll follow that vibe to the windows.