LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just when it looked as if the Kentucky Derby finally was within his grasp, Richard Mandella had it snatched away.
On the morning after he scratched 4-1 morning-line favorite Omaha Beach because of a throat ailment, Mandella was asked if it was the biggest disappointment of his 45-year training career.
“I’d say yes, because the Derby is what it is,” the 68-year-old Hall of Famer said Thursday during a news conference at Churchill Downs. “The Derby is what everybody knows, and everybody in racing has the dream to win it. It seemed like everything was going so perfect. He couldn’t have been training any better, and I actually thought that this is too perfect. And it turned out it wasn’t perfect.
“Came flying in here like it was written on us, and it didn’t work. And it was devastating, to be honest.”
Mandella said Omaha Beach coughed a few times while galloping Wednesday morning. He decided to scope his throat, which was sore “eight or 10 days ago but cleared up, so we didn’t think we had anything to worry about," Mandella said.
He was found to have an entrapped epiglottis, a fairly common ailment that isn’t career-threatening. It requires surgery, however, which Dr. Rolf Embertson was scheduled to perform Thursday afternoon at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington.
Dr. Foster Northrop, Mandella’s attending veterinarian, said: “The tissue underneath the epiglottis swells ... When a horse entraps, it really limits their breathing. It blocks probably a third of their airway. And in a race of this magnitude, that’s too much to give up.”
Northrop said the surgery is “very simple” and often done with the horse standing. An incision cuts the swollen tissue in half, making it shrink and disappear.
Mandella said he could resume training the Arkansas Derby winner in “two weeks, possibly three,” but that the problem’s timing also has eliminated running in the Preakness on May 18 or the Belmont Stakes on June 8.
“Had this happened three weeks ago, we probably would be running in the Derby,” Mandella said. “But three days isn’t enough to do anything to help it. So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is to give it up and go on to the next stop.”
He mentioned races at Saratoga, the Haskell at Monmouth Park and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar as possibilities for Omaha Beach.
Mandella is 0-for-6 in the Derby and never better than fifth. Despite feeling very low, he counted his blessings and relied on his famously wry sense of humor.
“I had a nice conversation with [owner-breeder] Arthur Hancock,” Mandella said. “He said, ‘Richard, [trainer] Charlie Whittingham was 73 when he won his first Derby.’ So who am I to think I should be doing that now?”
He praised his wife, Randi.
“How do I handle this? The lady sitting in the middle of the room is the most wonderful person in the world,” Mandella said. “Been with me 50 years, been married 46 or 47.
“Last night she tied one of my legs down to the bed so I wouldn’t jump out the hotel window. And she’s got a little bucket. She’ll walk around, and if you throw a donation in there, it will help us get home.”
Haikal has foot abscess: Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said an abscess in Haikal’s left front foot could keep him out of the Derby. It was discovered Wednesday and treated by standing him in a tub of hot water and Epsom salts. Haikal didn’t gallop Thursday, and McLaughlin said if he can’t gallop Friday, then he will be scratched by 8 a.m.