By BILLY REED | WAVE 3 News
I’m not naïve enough to believe there is any serious correlation between a thoroughbred’s name and his (or her) ability to run. Over 60 years, I’ve seen too many with regal names who couldn’t run a lick.
Yet there’s also a part of me, the dreamer part, that believes in fate or karma or whatever you want to call it. A horse with the right name comes along at the right time to win the Kentucky Derby and make us ponder things more important than a horse race.
So it is now with Omaha Beach.
This June 6 will be the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the name given to the Allied forces’ assault on the coastal beaches of Normandy, France, that was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
Under the leadership of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the invasion, the Normandy beaches were divided into five sections, and troops from the U.S., England, Canada, and other freedom-loving nations were assigned to one of them.
The sections were code-named Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah, and Omaha.
Besides being the largest of the five geographically, Omaha also presented the most daunting challenge: a sheer cliff of 150 feet or so that turned it into a shooting gallery for the Nazis high above. Then those who made it ashore were expected to scale the cliff and secure the high ground.
The task was further complicated by a storm that generated high waves that either overturned many of the amphibious transport ships or threw them off course.
The carnage was overwhelming. To get some sense of it, watch the first 27 minutes of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” Critics have said it’s the most graphic battle footage ever. And, yes, it depicted the landing on Omaha Beach.
An estimated 2,700 American troops died on Omaha Beach, many of them members of Gen. Omar Bradley’s First Army, the famed “Big Red One.” But, aided by artillery from U.S. Navy ships, a miraculous number of troops (34,000) survived to scale the heights and achieve the objective.
For Americans who remember World War II, or who have seriously studied it, Omaha Beach is sacred ground. So you know who’s going to be this year’s Derby pick at American Legion and VFW halls across the land.
Fortunately, the horse Omaha Beach seems worthy of his name. A son of War Front, he blossomed after trainer Richard Mandella switched him from turf courses to dirt. In his last three races, he has won by nine lengths at Santa Anita, captured a division of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and dominated the Arkansas Derby at the same track.
Given the choice between riding Omaha Beach or Roadster, the colt he rode to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, jockey Mike Smith opted for Omaha Beach. That probably means he will be a slight favorite when the 145th Derby field springs from the starting gate late on the afternoon of Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.
Maybe he’ll win, and maybe not, but Omaha Beach definitely has come along at the right time. In an age when some Americans mock war heroes who fought to protect our freedoms, when a certain segment of the population is told it can’t fight for our nation due to their sexual identity, it’s worthwhile to reflect on what happened at Normandy almost 75 years ago.
I’ve asked several of my younger friends if they know where or what Omaha Beach is, and I’ve been shocked that most don’t have a clue. Maybe this indicates a flaw in our educational system. Maybe we should start putting more emphasis on history and civics.
Whatever, the sheer bravery and patriotism of the men who died at Normandy on June 6, 1944, should never be forgotten. They died for the freedoms that we too often take for granted. They died so that we could be one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Omaha Beach is my Derby horse. Considering his credentials, I might well have picked him if his name were, oh, “Facebook Friends,” or “No Collusion.” But the name sets him apart in my book. Maybe it’s because of my late second cousin, Jack “Spook” Cockrell of Mt. Sterling.
He got his nickname because he looked as frail as a ghost. But the Army needed some skinny guys to be paratroopers and man the gliders that dropped troops behind enemy lines before important battles.
That’s what “Spook” did on D-Day. He never talked about the horror of it all, but he did tell me once that of the 28 men on his glider, only four survived.
I will be thinking about him, and a lot more, on the day that Omaha Beach runs in the Derby.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE 3 News.