A year after riding Justify to the Triple Crown, Mike Smith has a tough choice about which horse to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
Under Smith, Omaha Beach held off favored Improbable to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby by a length Saturday at Oaklawn Park, earning 100 points and vaulting himself into second place on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
After entering the day 19th in the standings with 37.5 points, the dark bay colt became one of the key contenders by winning the Grade 1 final Derby qualifier. Omaha Beach is second behind leader Tacitus in the standings that determine the 20-horse field for the Derby on May 4.
This race was pretty impressive.
Omaha Beach was up front by the halfway point on a sloppy track and dueled Bob Baffert-trained Improbable the rest of the way. The horse trained by Richard Mandella earned his second consecutive graded stakes victory and third in a row in four starts in 2019.
“He looked like he was well within himself and Mike (Smith) just let him enjoy his job,” Mandella said, “just stride out and go where he went. My first thought was, ‘Jeez, don’t move too quick.’ And then I thought, ‘Don’t be second-guessing Mike Smith.’ — one of the greatest of all times.”
Smith added, “Picked a nice little spot and stayed right there. His cruising speed just takes him up there. I just basically tried to stay out of way. He’s doing it too easy, I’m better off letting him than fighting him.”
Smith has the option to go with either Omaha Beach or Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster in the Derby.
“It’s a lovely decision to have,” he said. “My agent will make the decision. That’s why I pay him.”
Baffert has three Derby entries: Improbable, Game Winner and Roadster.
Omaha Beach ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.91 and paid $5.40, $3 and 2.80.
Improbable returned $3.60 and $3, and Country House paid $4.20 to show.
At Keeneland in the day’s other Derby prep, Owendale rallied to take charge entering the stretch and went on to win the $200,000 Lexington Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Anothertwistafate to earn 20 points.
Though the bay colt won’t make the Derby field on points, he earned his second win in three starts this year and first stakes triumph. Owendale struggled at first but made his way through the 10-horse field into the lead at the stretch and eventually drew clear in the Grade 3 race.
It marked a big turnaround for the Brad Cox-trained horse after an eighth-place finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16.
“Last race, we felt like he ate too much dirt, and he kind of backed out down the backside and then had too much to do,” said Cox’s assistant, Ricky Giannini. “Today, he ate the same amount of dirt. I think he’s just maturing and turning into a good horse. He’s always trained like it and today he put it all together and got the job done.”
Ridden by Florent Geroux, Owendale covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.14 and paid $27.40, $10 and $5.60.
“Things change a lot — sometimes you need to go to Plan B very quick,” Geroux said. “He ran a very good race.”
Anothertwistafate returned $3.40 and $2.60, and Sueno paid $2.80.