Derby Notes: ‘We’re All On Pins And Needles The Whole Way’

by | 05.02.2019 | 4:26pm
Trainer Bob Baffert walks Game Winner out to the track two days before the Kentucky Derby

Trainer Richard Mandella met with reporters Thursday morning a day after declaring Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite Omaha Beach out of Saturday's race because of an entrapped epiglottis.

“The good part is that the horse is going to be OK,” Mandella said. “It really isn't that serious. It's just the timing. We're going to do a simple procedure (at the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington) today and he'll be out of training for two or three weeks. Then we'll plan another campaign.”

The defection of the Fox Hill Farm's runner allowed Bodexpress to gain a spot in the starting gate for the 145th Run for the Roses.

Meanwhile, Shadwell Stable's Haikal is dealing with an abscess in his left front and did not train Thursday morning. The shoe is off and the foot is being soaked and iced.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said if Haikal can train Friday morning, he remains in the race. If not, he's out.

BODEXPRESS – Top Racing LLC, Global Thoroughbred and GDS Racing Stable's Bodexpress, who drew into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field when Omaha Beach was scratched Wednesday, visited the starting gate, paddock and galloped 1 ½ miles at Churchill Downs Thursday.

“He did very good. It looked to me that he moved really good over the track,” trainer Gustavo Delgado said.

Although Bodexpress is still a maiden and hadn't earned sufficient points to qualify for the Derby field when entries were taken Tuesday, Delgado went ahead and shipped the son of Bodemeister from his base at Gulfstream Park West in hopes of drawing into the race.

“You only have one chance,” Delgado said.

Bodexpress, whose maiden status may be a result of encountering some rough trips, finished second behind Maximum Security in the Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream.

“This horse is a good horse and he is doing very, very good,” said Delgado, Venezuela's all-time winningest trainer who has been based in South Florida since 2014.

Bodexpress will be the second Derby starter trained by Delgado. Majesto, who finished second behind Nyquist in the 2016 Florida Derby, checked in 18th behind Nyquist in the Derby.

Chris Landeros will ride in his first Kentucky Derby while riding Bodexpress for the first time.

“I'm ready. I'm excited and blessed to have the opportunity. I feel bad for the connections of Omaha Beach, but everything happens for a reason. I'm blessed with the opportunity to get in. I'll make the most of it, have some fun and enjoy the moment,” Landeros said. “Hopefully, it will be the first of many.”

Landeros also will ride in the Oaks for the first time Friday aboard Gulfstream Park Oaks (GII) winner Champagne Anyone. 

BY MY STANDARDS – Allied Racing Stables' By My Standards galloped 1 ½ miles Thursday morning for locally based trainer Bret Calhoun.

“We all have to cross our fingers until we make it to the Derby,” Calhoun said. “I feel awful for Richard(Mandella) and his connections. This is a crazy game and anything can happen. We just have to hold our breaths until we get there.”

By My Standards is scheduled to have a “normal” day of training Friday, according to Calhoun.

CODE OF HONOR – William S. Farish's Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor galloped 1 1/4 miles Thursday at his usual time of 6:30 a.m. and once again took a leisurely stroll back to the barn. 

Hall of Famer trainer Shug McGaughey, who has won lots of major races, is sending out just his eighth Kentucky Derby starter with Code of Honor and first since winning the “Run for the Roses” in 2013 with Orb. McGaughey said he's not following a specific routine this time around.

“We're not doing anything different than what we've been doing with him,” McGaughey said. “We're just going out and doing our thing. Orb had a work over the track and that was on a Monday. Code of Honor had a work over the track Sunday. He schooled in the paddock. It's probably easier on me this time. I'm just taking it all in and taking an easy.

“I feel like the pressure is off this year. A friend told me 'Shug, you know the first one is just the bait.' I'm excited about this one, too. I'd love the chance to win a second Derby.”

COUNTRY HOUSE/TACITUS – Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus and Mrs. J. V. Shields Jr. et al.'s Country House did very much the same thing Thursday as they did Wednesday for trainer Bill Mott. The Wood Memorial (GII) winner Tacitus and Arkansas Derby (GI) third-place finisher Country House galloped about 1½ miles on the main track and walked through the paddock.

Country House has had four starts this year, while Tacitus has only raced twice. Both had a pair of starts at age 2 — all in maiden special weight company. Last year, Mott came into the Derby with Juddmonte's Hofburg, who only raced three times prior and once as a juvenile.

“They both raced at 2, which I think is important,” Mott said. “I would say that Tacitus had two races as a 2-year-old as opposed to the one for Hofburg last year and that makes a difference. Having to race as a 2-year-old is extremely important. Of course everyone can refer to Justify, but I think that that's going to happen maybe once in a hundred years.

“I think in the past they did make a bigger deal out of (being lightly raced), but I felt after the two races he had as a 2-year-old had been enough for him at the time,” he continued. “He was a big, growthy colt and I didn't think he needed more than those races. It looked like he benefited more from stopping on him at that time. He put on weight, filled out and matured. Having the races as a 2-year-old is most important mentally, when you can expose them to different situations. He and Country House has a good foundation and are still figuring it out.”

Marianne Scherer (Country House) and Juan Quintero (Tacitus) were again in the respective irons Thursday morning.

CUTTING HUMOR/SPINOFF – The Kentucky Derby-bound duo of Starlight Stable's Cutting Humor and Wertheimer and Frere's Spinoff went trackside during the 15-minute Oaks-Derby training period at Churchill Downs Thursday morning as welcomed sun splashed the big oval instead of the promised rain. 

Cutting Humor had exercise rider Fernando Rivera in the boot and Spinoff was piloted by exercise rider Josue Garcia. The colts proceeded to both gallop about a mile and a quarter and work in a visit to the starting gate.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, as he often does with his big-race horses, grabbed his trusty binoculars and drove to the frontside to watch his 3-year-olds go through their paces. Back at the barn, he said he liked what he saw.

“They both galloped well and behaved at the gate,” the conditioner reported. 

Pletcher has named Corey Lanerie to rider Cutting Humor and given the call on Spinoff to Manny Franco.

GAME WINNER/IMPROBABLE/ROADSTER – As he has done for the last handful of days, Bob Baffert made the trek from Barn 33 to his signature gap to oversee his latest handiwork. 

He watched two of his Kentucky Derby entrants – Roadster and fellow Grade 1 winner Improbable – take their respective gallops around the Churchill Downs track during the 7:30-7:45 a.m. special training period for Derby and Oaks contenders and then was back at 9 a.m. when reigning juvenile male champion and newly minted morning-line favorite Game Winner came on under Humberto “Beto” Gomez to gallop a couple spins beneath the Twin Spires.

It was routine morning for his trio, one without incident or alarm. But given what had transpired around him the past 24 hours, the last thing the Hall of Fame trainer was about to do was breathe easy.

The scratch of Grade 1 winner and morning-line favorite Omaha Beach from the Kentucky Derby – coupled with news that graded-stakes winner Haikal was battling a foot abscess – cast a sobering tone over the Churchill backside Thursday morning as fellow horsemen empathized with the gut punch trainer Richard Mandella and owner Rick Porter had to absorb. Having been on that side of the fence himself, Baffert stated such situations are why his enthusiasm with now having the top three betting choices on the morning line is tempered to say the least.

“When I heard the news I felt this sickening feeling for Richard and (jockey) Mike (Smith) because I know Richard was so excited about it,” Baffert said. “And when you have a horse like that….it's so hard to come (here) with a horse like that. I felt horrible for him because I know what can happen. We're all competitors, but at the same time we wanted to see each other do well.

“He's my neighbor (at Santa Anita) and I know what it meant to him. The stars were lining up, everything was going smooth. That's why when everyone is like 'You don't seem that excited' it's because I know that this can happen. We're all on pins and needles the whole way. Until I get that saddle on them and throw the jockey up, that's when my job is done.”

All three of his Derby hopefuls have tested Baffert's legendary skill in getting themselves to this point. 

Roadster, ironically, had to undergo throat surgery himself following his third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity (GI) but has returned better than ever – as he demonstrated when he defeated Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby (GI).

Though Game Winner is still seeking his first win of 2019, Gary and Mary West's colt captured the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (GI) here last November and has not been worse than second in six career starts. The same applies to Improbable, who won the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI) last December and was second in both the Rebel Stakes (GII) and to Omaha Beach in Arkansas Derby (GI).

“We were looking to try and have another shot at (Omaha Beach),” said Elliott Walden, CEO and President of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Improbable along with China Horse Club International and Starlight Racing. “But he's a great horse, he'll come back and have a big year. He was probably one of the horses who was going to be close to the lead so it will be interesting to see what takes shape there (pace wise).”

Hall of Fame jockey Smith had been the regular rider of Roadster but opted to stay on Omaha Beach for the Kentucky Derby, opening up the opportunity for Florent Geroux to get on the former. When asked if there was any talk of trying to get Smith back on Roadster for Saturday, Baffert quickly shot down that notion.

“No, Flo is on,” Baffert said. “I never thought of that. I actually called Flo up last night and it was so funny he was like 'Are you taking me off boss?' I was like 'No, I'm all in.' I could never do that.”

GRAY MAGICIAN – Wachtel Stable, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gary Barber's UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician did very little Thursday morning at Churchill Downs, according to Peter Miller's assistant trainer Ashlie Campbell.

“He just walked today,” she said from Barn 39. “He's doing well. He schooled yesterday in the paddock during the races.”

The son of Graydar is one of the more seasoned in the race, especially with shipping. Never worse than fifth in his career, he has hit the board six of eight times and raced over four tracks in three very different regions: California, Maryland and Dubai. He enters the Kentucky Derby (GI) off a five-week rest after his trip to Dubai.

“I would think that running any after Dubai on just 35 days is a little quick, but sometimes they surprise you,” Miller said. “I thought initially he would need 60 days because I've had some that even needed 90 days off, but with him I think it felt like a trip up the 405 (freeway in Los Angeles).

“From a physical standpoint, he's held his weight and his coat is shiny,” Miller continued. “He's doing what you want to see. He's eating well, his attitude is good and he is training forwardly. That's what I'm looking at and as long as he keeps doing that, we're happy.”

Thirteen runners from the UAE Derby have attempted the Kentucky Derby, including nine winners, but the best finish was from Master of Hounds in 2011 who ran fifth.

HAIKAL – What has been an uneventful spring for promising Withers Stakes (GIII) winner Haikal changed at an inopportune time Thursday morning, as the Shadwell Farm homebred and Kiaran McLaughlin trainee was found to have a hoof abscess on his left front. The son of Daaher did not leave Barn 41 to exercise during the morning.  

“We didn't take him out training today because he has an abscess in his left front foot,” McLaughlin said. “The shoe is off and we are soaking and icing it. We will shoe him first thing in the (Friday) morning and train him if able. The horse will tell us. We will either be in or out (of the Kentucky Derby) by tomorrow morning at scratch time.

“It's just terrible timing,” he continued. “It's a situation that will correct itself and is similar to Omaha Beach. You feel bad for the connections. Just bad timing — that's all. We'll keep our fingers crossed.”

LONG RANGE TODDY – Willis Horton Racing LLC's Long Range Toddy galloped 1 1/2 miles Thursday under regular exercise rider Brooke Stillion and schooled in the gate. 

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who has two seconds and two thirds in the Kentucky Derby, but is still seeking his first win with his 20th starter, says he more worried about the chance of a wet track than the outside post. Long Range Toddy drew post 18, but will move in one spot with the scratch of Omaha Beach.

“I'm more concerned with the impending weather than the post position,” Asmussen said. “He breaks really well. He can get where he needs to be. He's handy and can get out of the gate quickly. We just don't want a track like we had in the Arkansas Derby (when sloppy). When he came off the bridle, he just struggled with the track. I've watched the race several times and he was just swimming.”

MASTER FENCER – Katsumi and Yasuyo Yoshizawa's Koichi Tsunoda-trained Master Fencer had an easy day Thursday, one day after putting in one final piece of work in 1:05.20 for five furlongs. Appearing quite relaxed, accordingly to his connections, he left the quarantine barn at 6:30 a.m. with exercise rider Yosuke Kono in the saddle and schooled in the paddock before returning.

“We hope to bring back the trophy to Japan, but right now we are just happy to be in the race,” said KatsumiYoshizawa through a translator. “Right now, I am not thinking about it too much. I am enjoying the race and being a part of such a great event. I have dreamt of coming here and have actually gone to the Keeneland September Sale for the last 15 years with that dream in my mind. When Master Fencer ran second last time, I was very disappointed because I thought I would miss the race again. Fortunately, the winner declined the offer from Churchill Downs, so I was lucky enough to receive the offer. I feel very lucky to be here.

“I actually purchased his dam, Sexy Zamurai (by Deputy Minister) out of the Keeneland sale and his sire, Just A Way, was a top horse who won the Dubai (Turf) whose sons and daughters are running very well on both turf and dirt,” he continued. “I'm not sure how Master Fencer will run. He's a good-acting horse. Hopefully he will change leads and gallop well over this course.”

MAXIMUM SECURITY – Gary and Mary West's Maximum Security galloped 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs Thursday morning.

The morning-line odds for Maximum Security in Saturday's Kentucky Derby (GI) were adjusted from 10-1 to 8-1 because of Wednesday's scratch of Omaha Beach, who had been installed as the 4-1 morning-line favorite.

“It does change things a little bit. I'm not talking speed or not speed. I'm just talking one live horse is out of there,” trainer Jason Servis said. “I feel really bad for [trainer Richard] Mandella and [owner Rick] Porter.”

Servis managed to find a bit of levity in the unfortunate scratch of the Arkansas Derby (GI) winner.

“I was glad to get [Omaha Beach's jockey] Mike Smith out of there,” Servis quipped. “I was more worried about Mike than the horse. Having him outside of me, I wasn't thrilled about that.”

The prospect of an off-track on Saturday doesn't concern Servis, who saddled Maximum Security for 6 ½-length victory over a muddy track at Gulfstream in his second lifetime start.

“He won on an off-track. He [Maximum Security] checked a lot of boxes. He won a major prep – the Florida Derby; he won in the mud; he lay third and came off the pace; he's undefeated; his mare is a half to Flat Out, who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice at a mile and a quarter. It doesn't matter what you like or don't like, he's checking a lot of boxes.”

Luis Saez, who guided Maximum Security to victory in the Florida Derby (GI), has the return mount.

OMAHA BEACH –The morning after the heartbreak, trainer Richard Mandella was doing his best to keep a stiff upper lip at Barn 28. 

“What are you going to do,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders. “You might say 'That's racing,' or you might say 'That's life,' or you might say it's some of both.”

The reference, of course, was to the unfortunate withdrawal of Fox Hill Farms' Omaha Beach from the role of favorite in Saturday's 145th Kentucky Derby Wednesday evening following the discovery of an entrapped epiglottis in the colt's throat. It was, naturally, a hard blow to the veteran trainer who has more than 45 years in the business and appeared to have his best shot yet to climb the Kentucky Derby mountain. 

Wednesday night, after the announcement was made, Mandella was asked if he'd ever had a punch in the gut like that before. 

“Not one that hard,” he said. “Not that hard.”

But employing classic trainer mentality, he quickly pivoted to the positive. 

“The good part is that the horse is going to be OK,” he noted. “It really isn't that serious. It's just the timing. We're going to do a simple procedure (at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington) today and he'll be out of training for two or three weeks. Then we'll plan another campaign.”

Mandella recalled that Omaha Beach had shown signs of a “sore throat” about a week ago and it was treated and appeared to clear up. But yesterday, during a strong morning gallop, the big War Front colt coughed several times indicating things were amiss. A veterinarian was called in and an endoscopic examination revealed the entrapped epiglottis. 

At a press conference in the track's Media Center on the frontside at approximately 10:15 Thursday morning, the trainer noted that he had no choice but to scratch from the race.

“If I had run him with this and at the quarter pole on Saturday he couldn't get his air, I would have to live with that forever,” he said. “It just wouldn't have been right for him. He's a very special horse and he deserves the best.”

Mandella said it was hard to make Wednesday night calls to owner Rick Porter and to Spendthrift Farm (where the horse will stand stallion duties) owner B. Wayne Hughes, but he said the two classy gentlemen wound up expressing their primary concern for him, more than he had for them. 

“That's what happens when you work for wonderful people,” he said. 

The trainer said he'd stay around for a few days to make sure that the horse was doing fine following the surgery, then was likely to head back to California Saturday with his wife Randi. 

Asked how he was able to handle such a seemingly insurmountable hurt – one that he admitted left him “devastated” Wednesday night — he remembered a line from the now-retired California trainer Mel Stute:

“I've got a lot of experience with disappointments,” he said. “This game will do that to you.”

PLUS QUE PARFAIT – Imperial Racing's UAE Derby (GII) champion Plus Que Parfait, whose $1,590,400 in earnings is second only to de facto favorite Game Winner, continued his steady path toward the Kentucky Derby (GI) on Thursday morning. The Brendan Walsh-trained chestnut son of Point of Entry left Barn 9 at 7:30 a.m. and proceeded to gallop one mile on the main dirt track before stopping at the starting gate to school and then galloping another mile—all under assistant trainer Tom Molloy. He schooled in the paddock during Thursday's second race.

“We wanted to have him stand in there nice and quietly,” Walsh said. “That's the whole point; keeping his mind ready. He's doing great and it seems like he's got good energy and using it all the right ways. He's been very good like that.”

Ridden in Dubai by Jose Ortiz and wearing blinkers for the first time, he returns with the headgear, but will switch pilots to Ricardo Santana, who rode him in his sole other victory. Said win was a gritty Keeneland maiden score in November over subsequent graded stakes winners Harvey Wallbanger and Cutting Humor. The latter also lines up in the Derby against the $135,000 Keeneland September 2017 purchase.

“He needs a rider like Ricardo,” Walsh said. “Even after we put the blinkers on him in Dubai, he needs to be told sometimes what to do and to be pointed in the right direction. He's a genuine horse and Ricardo is an excellent rider who knows the horse. He's been a good and a lucky rider for me.”

The best finish by a UAE Derby winner was China Visit in 2000, who finished sixth at Churchill Downs. 

 TAX – R. A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable's Tax galloped a 1 ¾ miles at Churchill Downs Thursday morning.

“I put a bigger gallop in him today. Tomorrow, as is our routine, we'll have a short gallop. He'll only gallop three-quarters of a mile,” trainer Danny Gargan said. “I just wanted to take a little edge off him.”

The Derby field lost a prominent contender when Omaha Beach was scratched Wednesday, but the defection of the morning-line favorite won't alter Gargan's game plan Saturday.

“It's not going to change what I'm doing. I'm going to do what I do,” Gargan said. “As I've said, we're going to break running, try to get to the rail. If the one horse [War of Will] goes we'll sit in behind him. If he doesn't go, we'll put ourselves out there and then take back. Hopefully, we'll sit in there fourth, fifth, or sixth.

The Wood Memorial (GII) runner-up will be ridden by Junior Alvarado.

VEKOMA – Randy Hill and Mike Gatsas' Vekoma galloped a mile and a quarter under exercise rider Cindy Hutter for trainer George Weaver.

Weaver said Vekoma probably would use the 5:15-5:30 training window Friday morning for Derby and Oaks horses.

Vekoma passed a paddock schooling test Wednesday afternoon and that part of his Derby preparation is complete, “He doesn't need to go back,” Weaver said.

Vekoma never has raced on an “off” track but does not believe it will be an issue Saturday that has a forecast calling for rain all day.

“He is bred to handle it and I have always thought this track is one of the best when it is wet,” Weaver said. “He should be forwardly placed and I hope he doesn't have to eat too much mud.”

Vekoma's dam, Mona de Momma, won the 2010 Humana Distaff (GI) here in the mud.

“I told him this morning that his momma liked it,” Weaver said with a grin.

 WAR OF WILL – With two days to go before the biggest race of his life, Gary Barber's multiple graded stakes winner continues to give trainer Mark Casse hope that his inside post position will not be a hindrance to him delivering his best run.

After watching War of Will put in another strong gallop under exercise rider Jose Vasquez Thursday, Casse said he was seeing a horse who not only had the speed to get away from post one in good order, but also had the potential to shut off and relax during his expected 10-furlong journey.

“We're ready,” Casse declared. “What was nice today was I thought earlier on in the week he was sharp, and you want sharp but you also want relaxed. And he's right where he does his best running. I thought he went really good today.”

With news coming down that Haikal is battling a foot abscess and could potentially scratch, War of Will could have his starting point slightly improved upon. If the field is reduced to 19, the inside stall would be left open and War of Will would then start from stall No. 2.

Like many horsemen on the Churchill backside, however, benefiting for another's misfortune is not something Casse relishes.

“I've been there. I feel bad for Richard (Mandella) and I feel bad for Mr. (Rick) Porter,” Casse said. “It's bittersweet, obviously the less competition the better for us, but you don't like winning races that way. And you feel their pain. There is only one Kentucky Derby so when you get knocked out of it, it's tough. And I can only imagine having the favorite.

“I always tell everybody – I've been telling Gary Barber for six months — when you have a Derby horse you hold your breath. That's all you do.”

 WIN WIN WIN – Live Oak Plantation's Win Win Win galloped a mile and a half under exercise rider MelanieWilliams for trainer Mike Trombetta.

Trombetta said Win Win Win would use the 5:15-5:30 Derby and Oaks training window the next two days with a gallop Friday and a jog Saturday. Win Win Win schooled in the paddock this afternoon with horses in the second race.

Trombetta made a quick trip back to Maryland Wednesday after training with his wife Marie to pick up their two sons, Michael and Dominic, who were trackside this morning.

“We flew in and spent about an hour and then flew back,” Trombetta said. “Our daughter Nicole, who is 25, is driving in tonight. She was about their age when I was here before (with Sweetnorthernsaint in 2006).”

Win Win Win shows one race on an “off” track and Trombetta was asked about the potential for an off track Saturday and how it may affect his colt.

“He ran in the Heft (at Laurel Dec. 29) and the track was listed as good,” Trombetta said. “It was wet, but it was kind of greasy. I don't think it will bother him. I hate for all the people.”

In the Heft, Win Win Win finished second to Alwaysmining going seven furlongs.

“Alwaysmining has won his last three races easily,” Trombetta said of the Maryland-bred who has won those black-type races by a combined 22 ½ lengths. “I know those weren't the biggest of races, but he is going to tough going into the Preakness off four weeks off.”

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram