Trainer Richard Mandella sat in his hotel room Wednesday evening, and he knew it was over. His colt, Omaha Beach, who had earned the status of Kentucky Derby favorite and trained so beautifully since arriving at Churchill Downs 10 days before, would not be able to run in the world’s most famous race.
Mandella, the 68-year-old son of a blacksmith who has worked his way into the most prestigious winner’s circles in the sport, even into its Hall of Fame itself, struggled with losing an opportunity at the signature race that has eluded him.
“I sat down, had to gather my thoughts a little bit,” he said. “. . . It was devastating, to be honest. I have done this for 45 years, so I have seen the movie and starred in it. You know, it’s part of training horses. But I had a really nice message from Arthur Hancock yesterday, and he said, ‘Richard, (Charlie) Wittingham was 73 when he won his first one.’ So who am I to think I should be doing this now?”
Still, dreaming is in the human DNA, and maybe in thoroughbred racing DNA as much as any. And Mandella had every right.
He not only had the race favorite, but Omaha Beach got over the Churchill Downs surface splendidly. His demeanor had been perfect. Better than perfect, really.
This colt tugged at every heartstring. Named for the Normandy D-Day beach that saw some of the worst fighting in the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II, he was the favorite of many World War II veterans and their families, like Danita Conte of Louisville, who was at the barn in the Churchill Downs stable area the day Omaha Beach stepped off the van. Her father, Chester Dare Meador, was named after a racehorse.
“Dad never bet on a single horse, but we lived over on Montana and we would watch the horse races on TV every year and it was a big deal,” she said. “He fought on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion, and I just knew he’d smile at me being here to see this horse.”
The colt made friends with a great many visitors to the barn. Mandella would let children touch his nose, usually a no-no with racehorses.
“He’s just a sweet horse,” Mandella said. “He always has been. I think it took him two or three races to get that fire that you want to see just for that reason. . . . I never had a good horse like him that had such a kind personality and took it in stride the way he does. So it’s just an unbelievable thing to have one like him.”
None of that, however, guarantees anything. Horse racing can be a feel-good business. It can also be heartbreaking.
About 10 days ago, Mandella said Omaha Beach came down with what he termed a sore throat.
“We saw some inflammation in the throat as soon as he got here,” Dr. Foster Northrop, the colt’s veterinarian said. “And we treated him accordingly with some throat flush and all of that inflammation went away. So we all felt we were golden until (Wednesday) morning.”
The culprit, it turned out, was what doctors term an entrapped epiglottis. In reality, cartilage swells and sticks in the airway to the point where athletic performance is compromised. Northrop said it’s a fairly simple surgery, performed while the animal is standing, to cut away some of the inflamed portion of cartilage to allow regular air flow again. The colt was to undergo surgery at Reed & Riddle Equine Medical Center in Lexington this afternoon.
He’s not in any discomfort, and didn’t appear to be hampered in his training. But had he gone all out, Mandella said, it could well have been a different story.
“You couldn’t have asked a horse to train any better or look any better this whole period we’ve been here,” Mandella said. “You’ve all seen it. He galloped yesterday. If you didn’t look up his nose with a scope, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. But I’m sure by the time he’d hit the quarter pole (in a race) he’d know it was there, and it would be a terrible feeling. As bad as it felt yesterday, it would’ve been a terrible feeling to have him not finish well and know I was at fault for ruining him. So we had to do the right thing by the horse – and that thing was to give it up and go to the next step.”
That meant placing a difficult phone call to owner Rick Porter, who knows plenty about racing heartbreak as the owner who lost Eight Bells immediately after the 2003 Derby. And Mandella called Wayne Hughes of Spencer Farm, who had bought the colt’s breeding rights this week.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work for some of the greatest people in the world, and their concern was maybe more for me after I got done, it seemed that, than me for them, which doesn’t seem right, but that’s how lucky I am.”
Mandella said that any Triple Crown race is out for Omaha Beach, who will be out of training for at least two weeks. He could be back in time for the Travers or Haskell this summer, on his way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic if all goes well.
But the Derby, and that dream, is on hold for Mandella. And he made no effort to minimize the difficulty of losing out on this chance. He joked that his wife tied one leg and one arm to the bed Wednesday night to keep him from bolting to jump out the window.
“We came flying in here like we had it written on us, and it didn’t work,” Mandella said. “. . . When you learn about horse racing, the first thing you learn is the Kentucky Derby. You grow up in it. You work in it. Whether you’re a jockey or trainer or groom, hot-walker, owner, it doesn’t matter. The Kentucky Derby is what everybody knows. Everybody has that dream. But horsemen care for their animals. We don’t always get the warning and things happen. . . . Our players can’t talk to us. We have to use instincts, little signs we see. Occasionally things get past us. But we all do the best we can. Our horses’ conditions mean the world to us.”
Even more, it turns out, than the Kentucky Derby.
When the field breaks from the starting gate on Saturday, Mandella will be on his way back to California. He had been asked to stay around, but without a horse racing, he wasn’t feeling it.
“I’m probably going to fly home Saturday,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get to see it. I didn’t say no as sour grapes. I wish everybody the best of luck. It was a tough pill to swallow. I said that to Foster in front of the horse, and the horse looked at me like, ‘You think you had a tough pill to swallow?'”
Mandella’s emotions were strongest when talking about the Triple Crown series.
“We obviously can’t run in,” he said, coughing a bit. “I’m sorry. This whiskey is pretty strong. It’s getting to me.”
As anyone who has been a part of or been around it, this sport will do that.