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Richard Mandella finally has a top Kentucky Derby contender

Omaha Beach trainer Richard Mandella is in

 Omaha Beach trainer Richard Mandella is in the winner's circle after capturing the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on April 13.

  When asked recently about being 0-for-6 in the Kentucky Derby, Hall of Famer Richard Mandella said he “forgot to sign up for Derby classes in school.” Two years ago, he told the Derby “has been a great mystery to me,” and that he might figure it out “when I grow up.”

At 68, maybe he finally has. His colt Omaha Beach is the likely favorite — or maybe second behind Bob Baffert’s Roadster — in next Saturday’s 145th Run for the Roses.

“It’s a new experience for me,” Mandella said. “I’m not used to having such a good 3-year-old at this time of the year. But I’m due. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Pretty much all his life. Mandella grew up near Los Angeles as the son of blacksmith Gene Mandella, and in 45 years as a trainer he’s won almost everything except a Triple Crown race. His world-class resume lists five Eclipse Award champions, including the great mare Beholder, and victories in the Dubai World Cup, Arlington Million, Haskell, Pacific Classic and Santa Anita Handicap. In 1996, Cigar was going for a world-record 17th consecutive victory, and Mandella upset him with 40-1 shot Dare and Go. He swept a record four races at the 2003 Breeders’ Cup, inspiring race caller Tom Durkin’s salute “Man oh Mandella, what a day!”

Six months later, Mandella watched his colt Minister Eric finish 16th in the 2004 Derby.

“Well, the 15 years is significant,” he said. “That’s the time they gave me. They told me don’t come back again for 15 years. So, the time’s up, and I’m back.”

Mandella is playful and clever, but his one-liners produce smiles, not laughs, because his wit is as dry as the Mojave Desert. His jokes can slip past you like a late-breaking curveball that paints the corner of home plate. Here’s his answer on whether he thinks Omaha Beach can handle the Derby distance.

“Well, they all can get a mile and a quarter,” Mandella deadpanned. “It’s just a matter of the time.”

Omaha Beach, a late bloomer, was 0-for-4 before an eight-length runaway Feb. 2 in the slop at Santa Anita. On March 16, in his stakes debut, the 8-1 shot held off Baffert’s undefeated 2-year-old champion, Game Winner, by a nose in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. A fluke? No. A month later, Omaha Beach beat another heavily favored Baffert runner, Improbable, by a length on a wet track in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby.

“Since he got serious about racing, his workouts always have been like a first-class horse,” Mandella said. “So it’s no surprise that he’s gotten this good. Probably the concern I have is that someday somebody will ask how I got him beat so many times.”

Behind the jesting burns a desire to finally get the most coveted and elusive trophy in American racing.

“He wants this bad, believe me,” said Rick Porter, Omaha Beach’s owner. “He just wants to prove he can win the Kentucky Derby because of his track record. He’s done just about everything else in horse racing. He wants this as much as anybody could ever want anything.”

Omaha Beach is a son of War Front, noted for siring grass runners, not distance types on dirt. Omaha Beach began his career on turf, finishing third, second and second last year before running a close second on the main track. Mandella was asked about the surface switch.

“Well, after his last grass race, he finally said to me, ‘Boss, you ought to run on the grass, not me.’ ‘’

Trainers often say a horse tells you when it’s ready to break through, but never had a Mr. Ed moment helped transform a mediocrity into a Derby contender. Jockey Mike Smith believes, because last year’s Triple Crown hero jumped off the Santa Anita Derby winner, Roadster, to stick with Omaha Beach.

“He’s done everything,” Mandella said. “He’s run 7 furlongs in 1:21 and won at a mile and an eighth. It took a few races to make a man out of him, but he’s learned how to fight. He’s so kind and smart. Now that he’s a professional racehorse, I think he’d do whatever we ask him.

“We’re hoping it stays that way for a couple more weeks, at least.”

The Richard Mandella file

Career victories: 2,134

Biggest wins: Dubai World Cup, Breeders' Cup Classic, Breeders' Cup Turf, Arlington Million, Met Mile, Pacific Classic, Haskell

Top horses: Beholder, Gentlemen, Pleasantly Perfect, Rock Hard Ten, The Tin Man, Kotashaan, Phone Trick

Hall of Fame (2001)

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