LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Out of the blue, the favorite is out of the Derby.
Trainer Richard Mandella announced late Wednesday afternoon at Churchill Downs that his colt Omaha Beach, who was the 4-1 morning-line favorite, will not run in Saturday’s 145th Kentucky Derby because of a throat problem.
Mandella said Omaha Beach has an entrapped epiglottis — a triangular-shaped cartilage at the base of the airway just in front of cartilages that cover the airway during swallowing. When an abnormality occurs there, it can hinder the breathing process and adversely affect a horse’s performance.
“He was coughing this morning, which made us suspicious, and we scoped him,” Mandella said. “It’s not anything we can fix to have him run on Saturday, so we’re going to have to scratch him.
"We can’t fix it this week, so we’ll have to have a procedure done in a few days and probably be out of training for three weeks. We’ll have to figure out a whole new game plan.”
The California-based trainer said he will meet with the media Thursday at 8 a.m. at Barn 28 on the Churchill backstretch.
An entrapped epiglottis is not an uncommon problem for thoroughbreds, and it is not life-threatening or even career-threatening. Surgery requires three to six weeks of recovery time.
The scratch will allow the Derby’s only also-eligible, Florida Derby runner-up Bodexpress, to draw into the race. Bodexpress, who is winless in five starts, will have the far outside post in the field of 20.
Omaha Beach drew post 12 in Tuesday’s draw. The horses who received posts 1 through 11 will remain in them. Those who got posts 13 through 20, starting with Country House in 20, will move inside one spot but will retain the same saddlecloth number and betting number. Bodexpress will be identified as No. 21 for wagering purposes.
One of the most famous horses to have an entrapped epiglottis was Alysheba, who underwent a procedure on March 24, 1987, six weeks before he won the Kentucky Derby. Dr. Scott Merrill performed the operation in the colt’s stall at Santa Anita, according to a May 1987 article in the Los Angeles Times.
Only 29 days later after the procedure, Alysheba finished first in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland but was disqualified and placed third for interference. Nine days after that, the colt won the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, he also won the Preakness, and he ran 14 times after that in a three-season career that took him to the Hall of Fame.
Omaha Beach’s setback was a bitter disappointment for the California-based Mandella, a 68-year-old Hall of Famer who has won dozens of world-class races but never one in the Triple Crown series. He is 0-for-6 in the Derby and had never brought such a promising colt to the race. He recently said “he was due,” and many handicappers thought his time for a breakthrough had come.
Omaha Beach is 2-for-2 on wet tracks, and the likelihood of rain on Derby Day adds to Mandella’s pain. Weather.com is predicting a 100-percent chance of precipitation for Saturday. A healthy Omaha Beach would have had an even greater chance to win on a sloppy or muddy surface.
The ailment was another blow to owner Rick Porter, who like Mandella is winless in the Derby.
“I can tell you it breaks my heart,” Porter told the Daily Racing Form. “I was looking forward to it so much.”
In the 2008 Derby, Porter’s filly Eight Belles broke down, shattering both forelegs, about a minute after finishing second to Big Brown. The catastrophic injury ended her life and created trauma for the sport.
In yet another cruel twist, Eight Belles’ trainer, Larry Jones, picked Omaha Beach for Porter out of a 2017 yearling sale.
The scratch also deprived Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith of a mount. Smith swept the Triple Crown last spring on undefeated Justify for trainer Bob Baffert. Smith also had been riding Roadster for Baffert this spring. A week after Roadster won the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, Smith took the Arkansas Derby on Omaha Beach at rain-drenched Oaklawn Park.
At the draw, Smith said he chose Omaha Beach as his Derby mount because of his experience and that he thought he’d be better suited for the Derby. Florent Geroux picked up the mount on Roadster, who at post time Saturday might end up as the betting favorite.
Track oddsmaker Mike Battaglia's update made Baffert's Game Winner the 9-2 favorite, with Improbable, also trained by Baffert, and Roadster the co-second choices at 5-1.