“It’s been a devastating thing, but we have to do what’s right for the horse.”
Richard Mandella, the 68-year-old trainer of Omaha Beach, made the tough decision on Wednesday to scratch his horse after the 4-1 opening favorite developed a breathing problem due to an entrapped epiglottis. While the condition is not life threatening and surgery is minor, the horse will be out approximately 2-3 weeks. That would set up a potential return for the Belmont, but jockey Mike Smith — who chose to ride Omaha Beach over any of Bob Baffert’s three horses — will not win the Triple Crown for the second straight year.
The legendary trainer Baffert captured last year’s Triple Crown with Justify and this year assumes not only the slight-favorite Game Winner, he features the second favorites: Improbable and Roadster.
Even with the stunning change at the top, if the past six years tells us anything it’s that in the Kentucky Derby, the favorite is probably going to win. Starting in 2013, Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Always Dreaming and Justify were the odds-on favorite to win the first leg in their respective years and the horses did just that. That reversed a trend of unpredictability: Before 2013, it had been four years since a favorite had won, and between 1980-1999, no favorite won.
However, without a clear-cut favorite like Justify or American Pharoah, this is the best chance to see the recent trend of favorites finishing first bucked. Here is the updated full slate of participants and post positions as of Thursday morning in the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, with predictions below.
WIN: No. 8 Tacitus
Tacitus is the kind of big, strong horse that can sustain any traffic out the gate when you’re dealing with a 20-horse race. He’s won three straight races: a maiden contest in November at Aqueduct, the Tampa Bay Derby in March and The Wood Memorial in April. Tacitus has the pedigree you’re looking for in a horse, as he’s the homebred son of Tapit, the leading sire in North America 2014-2016. Along with the experience factor, the colt has proved he can overcome adversity, closing from far back in the TB Derby to set a stakes record, as well as overcoming a hard bump in the Wood Memorial to beat Tax. He’s a strong finisher and with Omaha Beach out, I predict that Tacitus breaks the six-year streak of the favorite winning The Derby and crosses the finish line first on the first Saturday in May.
PLACE: No. 15 Game Winner
Even with the Omaha Beach scratched, Bob Baffert still will come up short in his quest to capture a third Triple Crown in 2019, but one of his three horses will finish in the Top 2. Game Winner had some tough luck in his last two races, finishing behind Omaha Beach by a nose at the Rebel Stakes and losing to Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. He ran well in both of those races, however, and prior to those to losses he won the Breeders Cup Juvenile, proving he can win at Churchill Downs. Getting bumped down to the 15 post should help a bit.
SHOW: No. 12 Code of Honor
Code of Honor’s jockey John Velazquez was victorious with Always Dreaming two years ago in the Kentucky Derby and with Animal Kingdom in 2011. Now, he gets a very favorable post position this year taking Omaha Beach’s No. 12 spot. Inconsistency has plagued this horse over the past year, but he did win his debut last August as well as the Fountain of Youth Grade 2 in March. In his last race he finished third in the Florida Derby, but showed encouraging signs of being able to charge at the end. If he can put to use those closing skills and avoid any traffic or setbacks early in the race, he’s one to include on Trifectas and Superfectas.
Big Chee Bonus long shot to throw in a Superfecta: No. 19 Spinoff
At 30-1 odds, you could throw $5 on one of Todd Pletcher’s horses to win and pay for a night out to dinner with the family at Applebee’s! Despite opening at the same odds as Cutting Humor (Pletcher’s other horse in The Derby), I believe Spinoff is the faster, more talented horse. The chestnut-colored colt is lightly raced with only two starts since last August — he won by 11-and-a half lengths at an allowance optional claiming race in February and finished second in the Louisiana Derby in March. His jockey Manny Franco believes he has the speed and his figures are trending in the right direction. If Franco stays relaxed aboard Spinoff it could make for an interesting final stretch.
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