By Jody Demling | Contributor
Richard Mandella has won a lot of races during his Hall of Fame training career, but the Kentucky Derby is one race not on his resume.
In fact, the 68-year-old Mandella first started a horse in the Derby back in 1984. He’s 0-for-6 in the Derby and it’s been 15 years since he’s had one run under the Twin Spires on the feature race the first Saturday in May.
“I guess I missed the Derby classes,” Mandella said last week. “I’m due.”
Well, Mandella is not only back in the Derby spotlight but he has the likely favorite Omaha Beach. The son of War Front had his final workout before the Derby on Saturday morning at Churchill and was “super impressive,” according to trainer Bob Baffert, who has won five Kentucky Derby races and was watching Mandella’s horse from the grandstands.
Mandella was beaming with confidence after Omaha Beach cleared “a big hurdle.”
“He’s very happy to do what we ask him to do,” Mandella said. “He can run, period. He’s got a great mind and he’s so calm. You have seen him walking around back here and the crowds and people don’t bother him. He’s just very calm. I think he’s got what it takes.”
Mandella grew up near Los Angeles and was born the son of a blacksmith. Mandella has trained five Eclipse Award winning horses and is known for training the horse – Dare and Go – that snapped the great Cigar’s 17-race winning streak in 1996.
But the Derby scene is newer to him.
Mandella was 15th with Bedouin in 1984 and then his best finish in the Derby came in ’94 with Soul of the Matter in fifth. Afternoon Deelites was eighth in ’95, Desert Hero was 13th in ’99 and Action This Day finished sixth and Minister Eric was 16th in 2004.
“In horse racing you just can’t make something happen that’s not going to happen,” Mandella said. “You have to wait for it to happen. I’ve been waiting for it to happen.
“I’ve had four 2-year-old champions, so it’s not like I don’t run 2-year-olds. Like I said, I guess I missed the Derby classes or 15 years is the time they gave me. They told me don’t come back for 15 years. So, now my time is up.”
Mandella is calm and making jokes – which shows how good Omaha Beach is doing at Churchill – but owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farms said he knows what winning the Derby would mean to Mandella and to his career.
“He wants this bad, believe me,” Porter said. “He just wants to prove he can win the Kentucky Derby with his track record. And you know, he’s done everything – just about everything – in horse racing and he wants it as much as anybody could ever want it. We’re both virgins, so hopefully this will take care of both of us.”
Mandella started Omaha Beach off on the turf because of his pedigree and he didn’t break his maiden until his fifth start. He was third in his first start and then had three second-place finishes because he broke his maiden on Feb. 2 at Santa Anita.
On March 16, Omaha Beach made his stakes debut and at 8-1 odds beat Baffert’s 2-year-old champion Game Winner by a nose. He returned the next month and held off Baffert’s Improbable by a length in winning the Arkansas Derby.
Mandella said he knew after that day he made him think, “man he’s going to be the one.”
“I never saw a 3-year-old, this good at this time of the year in my barn,” Mandella said. “And he keeps developing. I wish I could take credit for it, but I think a lot of it is the big man.”
With over 2,100 career victories and a Hall of Fame induction way back in 2001, Mandella said he needs one more victory to cap his career – the Derby.
But he knows it won’t be easy, so he jokes around about picking Baffert’s mind. Baffert has won the Triple Crown in 2015 and ’18 and is neighbors with Mandella’s barn at Santa Anita, so the two see and talk to one another each day.
“He’s been tutoring me about Derby’s for a couple of years,” Mandella said of Baffert. “But when I won the Rebel he started throwing me curveballs.”
Baffert got a good laugh out of the line and said the Hall of Famer doesn’t need any help.
“First of all, he doesn’t need any advice,” Baffert said. “He walks by my barn every day and talks about it. I can tell how excited he is because there’s nothing like having a horse that has a chance to win. It’s amazing how he just floats by my barn when he walks by there. It’s a great feeling, and that’s what the Derby does. He definitely has the horse to beat. He looks really good.”
And if Mandella would ask Baffert – who will saddle three horses in the race – for any advice.
“I would say wait for the Preakness,” Baffert said with a smile.