The Week in Review: To Find the Nation’s ‘Now’ Horse, Turn Back the Clock Six Months

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Omaha Beach | Coady

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The best chance for racing’s championship season to end on an exclamation point this year involves Omaha Beach (War Front) running in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Turn back the clock six months to Apr. 13, when Omaha Beach vaulted to the top of the 3-year-old crop with an aggressive GI Arkansas Derby win that stamped him as the deserving favorite for the GI Kentucky Derby. Armed with sharp speed, a high level of torque through multiple gears, and a professional willingness to fight when challenged, Omaha Beach certainly looked like an up-and-coming kingpin, maybe even the type of horse who could carry his clout through the Triple Crown.

But Omaha Beach never ran in the Derby. He ended up scratching three days before the race, derailed from Triple Crown competition because of the highest-profile and poorest-timed case of entrapped epiglottis in the history of the sport. And while Omaha Beach spent his summer recovering from a surgical procedure to aid his breathing, neither the sophomore class nor the older male dirt division churned out a reliable, charismatic, A-list leader.

Now we’re closing in on three weeks to the Breeders’ Cup, and Omaha Beach is coming off a scary-good comeback race, having won the Oct. 5 GI Santa Anita Sprint Championship by grinding down a legitimate 3-5 favorite who is one of the nation’s best six-furlong specialists. Omaha Beach was also dealing with older foes for the first time after not having raced for half a year, and he galloped out energetically after the effort.

Omaha Beach’s connections have three GI Breeders’ Cup race options (Classic, Sprint, Dirt Mile) under consideration. While there are pros and cons to each, the choice that would infuse a welcome jolt of excitement into the two-day festivities is the Classic.

That’s because Omaha Beach was the nation’s “now” horse before the Derby, and he’s the “now” horse, well…now.

This is a fan-favorite colt who consistently breaks running, asserts himself in the pack with authority, then settles into a rhythmic cadence to control the tempo. Last spring, over increasing distances in two Oaklawn Park stakes, we saw him swat away length-of-stretch challenges from two top-level 3-year-olds (one of them the juvenile champion). The female side of his pedigree resonates with dirt stayers. Speed-figure disciples say Omaha Beach’s numbers are legit, and every Beyer rating he’s earned has been faster than his previous efforts through an eight-race career, capped by a 103 in his most recent race.

There’s also some jockey intrigue pertaining to the Classic and Mike Smith, Omaha Beach’s regular rider. Back in the spring, Smith chose Omaha Beach as his Kentucky Derby mount over ‘TDN Rising Star’ Roadster (Quality Road), whom he had ridden to victory for trainer Bob Baffert in the GI Santa Anita Derby. But Omaha Beach ended up scratching, Smith picked up a late Derby mount on a 24-1 shot who ran 11th, and Roadster, paired with his own replacement after Smith opted off and it was too late for Baffert to re-commit to him, ran 16th.

Now, just last week, Baffert relieved Smith of his duties on ‘TDN Rising Star’ and potential Classic favorite McKinzie (Street Sense) after Smith’s tactics aboard McKinzie in the Sep. 28 GI Awesome Again S. at Santa Anita didn’t result in the 3-5 favorite being able to reel in 25-1 long shot Mongolian Groom (Hightail). Smith had ridden McKinzie in all 12 of the colt’s lifetime races, including four Grade I victories.

Although it was not Baffert’s intent, taking Smith off of McKinzie perhaps prevented the jockey from having to make another uncomfortable business decision that could have arisen if Omaha Beach ends up getting pointed for the Classic.

So what about McKinzie?

Of the horses verbally committed to the Classic by their connections, McKinzie would right now rate as the tepid favorite. He shares some similarities to Omaha Beach in that in 2018, his Triple Crown season also got wiped out (leg injury). McKinzie resurfaced last fall to win his Grade I comeback off a half-year layoff (Pennsylvania Derby), then was 12th, beaten 31 lengths, in last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Classic (the only time he has not finished first or second in his career).

At ages 2 and 3, McKinzie swished his tail in stretch runs when Smith called upon him for more aggression and when Smith went to the whip, giving the impression that the colt wasn’t overly fond of engaging in the heat of battle. This year, through most of his 4-year-old season, McKinzie seemed to have outgrown that bad habit, and he showed more fortitude and focus down the lane in winning the GI Whitney S. and near-missing in two other Grade Is.

But somewhere along the line, Smith’s preferred game plan for McKinzie evolved into letting the colt break alertly, floating him to the outside of potential trouble on the clubhouse turn, then conceding the lead on the backstretch before picking off the pacemaker(s) turning for home. This worked to perfection in McKinzie’s May 3 GII Alysheba S. win at Churchill Downs and again in the Whitney at Saratoga.

But in McKinzie’s final tune-up prior to the Classic, it didn’t. He broke on top in the Awesome Again, drifted three deep on the first turn, then let the second-longest shot in the field, Mongolian Groom, assume command. McKinzie advanced in hand upon his prey more or less as planned some 2 1/2 furlongs out, but when Mongolian Groom wouldn’t back down in the stretch, Smith hit McKinzie twice, and when the second crack of the crop elicited nothing more than a tail swish, Smith relented and McKinzie could manage only second.

Smith was subsequently sacked from McKinzie, and last Wednesday Joel Rosario was named by Baffert to ride the colt in the Classic.

Other Top Classic contenders

Higher Power (Medaglia d’Oro) is actually the horse out of the Awesome Again who has the most upside heading into the Classic. He stumbled badly at the start then was rushed up into traffic and was difficult to settle. After advancing readily a half-mile out, he still had trouble finding a clear path in a short field and was no match for the top two by the time he hit his best stride to finish third.

For a running line that likely indicates his true ability, refer back to Higher Power’s rousing GI Pacific Classic score in which he unleashed a bold move and was still hand-ridden at the quarter pole while every competitor behind him was under a desperate drive.

Code of Honor (Noble Mission {GB}) spent the better part of his spring being labeled as a light-bodied, late-foaled underachiever who needed races to set up in favor of his distance-pedigreed closing style in order for things to go his way. He got put up to second from third in the controversial Derby DQ (even though he did not take advantage of a huge rail opening off the turn to win it all).

Then, after sitting out the rest of the Triple Crown, Code of Honor re-emerged as a new and improved battler, parlaying impressive wins in the GIII Dwyer S. and the GI Travers S.

But in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, even though Code of Honor engaged in a spirited drive over the final furlong with Vino Rosso (Curlin) that came up only a nose short at the wire, he really should have prevailed considering how the front-running Vino Rosso had already been softened up by two other strong rivals before Code of Honor took him on. Code of Honor ended up being awarded the victory via DQ over (in my opinion) a minor jostling infraction, yet his Derby and Jockey Club Gold Cup lapses relating to not being able to seal the deal remain concerns heading to Santa Anita for the Classic.

Elate (Medaglia d’Oro) is reportedly being pointed to the Classic rather than the GI Distaff, and the Classic’s 10 furlongs is the chief reason. She is 3-for-3 lifetime at that distance, and would be a credible threat at a square mutuel price as a seasoned mare taking on male horses.

These are all capable Classic contenders. But if Omaha Beach doesn’t join this cast of characters in the culminating race of the Breeders’ Cup, the Classic will be without the nation’s “now” horse, and it will lack the key plot point the series needs to ensure the storyline remains intriguing right up until the end.

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