The Kentucky Derby favorite for 2019 is Game Winner, but only because the horse who was the most likely winner dropped out just a few days before the race. Why did Omaha Beach scratch the Kentucky Derby? The decision was ultimately made by Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
Mandella, who has amassed slew of incredibly impressive racing wins, has never won a Kentucky Derby, and this year he'll be sitting it out. He told the AP that Omaha Beach had a cough, and a veterinarian exam showed he had an entrapped epiglottis, which can make it hard for a horse to breathe and can affect exercise performance, according to Wag Labs. It can be corrected with a minor surgery, but will prevent Omaha from racing in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes as well as the Derby, according to CBS Sports.
"It’s been a devastating thing, but we have to do what’s right for the horse,” Mandella told the AP. “It’s such a disappointment, but we’ll fight again. We won’t be out a long time.”
Jockey Mike Smith, who won the Triple Crown in 2018 on Justify, told CBS Sports he was bummed to have to scratch, "but the horse is OK and we're going to be all right. The good news is it wasn't anything that is life-threatening."
Though Omaha Beach won't have a shot at this year's Triple Crown, he will make a full recovery after surgery and will be back to racing by late June or early July, according to Blood-Horse magazine. Mandella told the magazine that once the surgery is done next week, "we’ll have to figure out a whole new game plan."
Smith told Blood-Horse that Mandella felt so bad about having to scratch the Derby:
You could hear it in his voice. He’s just devastated over it, and you can see why. A horse like this who was training as well as he was training, all systems were go and now you have to pull the plug. You can only imagine what it felt like for him and Mr. (Rick) Porter and all of the connections. But it’s part of the game if you’re in it long enough.
Owner Rick Porter, who battled cancer that recently went into remission, said that after the surgery, Omaha Beach will go back to winning big races. He told Blood-Horse, "You know what, I've had some worse things in the last few years, and we're going to go forward and he's going to be ready to win the big races later on in the year."
With Omaha Beach out of Saturday's race, ABC7 noted that "no one horse commanded the attention." Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia's revisions to the line made Game Winner the new favorite, according to the AP. Game Winner is trained by Bob Baffert, whose trainees have won the Triple Crown twice. Baffert has even better chances at a win this year, too — he also trains Improbable and Roadster, the horses who are tied for the second choice betting spot at 5-1, according to CBS News.
The race is schedule for 6:50 p.m. EST on Saturday.