LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Ask any trainer what they want for their horse in the Kentucky Derby, and the first item will always be a perfect trip.
Omaha Beach had a perfect 9 hour and 47 minute trip while rolling 579 miles from Hot Springs, Arkansas to Churchill Downs in a jumbo, gray horse van Tuesday.
Now all the colt needs is an equally perfect 2 minute and change trip while flashing over the mile-and-a-quarter dirt at Churchill Downs May 4.
“He keeps getting better,” said Jose Vera, the groom who will care for Omaha Beach until trainer Richard Mandella arrives from California.
I asked Vera what has been going right for the colt, whose victory in the Arkansas Derby Saturday was his third straight since early February. This is a guy who has worked for Mandella’s Hall of Fame stable for 37 years.
“Everything,” Vera said.
Considering Omaha Beach outran and outlasted Bob Baffert’s Improbable to win the Arkansas Derby by a length last Saturday, reasonable people will ask all kinds of questions about the colt and the possibility of him being the Derby favorite.
So, he’s eating well? Moving well? Traveling well?
“Everything,” Vera said.
That observation was seconded by Mike Stout, who drove to Hot Springs from Louisville Sunday and then drove Omaha Beach and three other horses to Churchill Downs Tuesday.
Stout said they departed the serene Arkansas race track at 5:17 a.m. (EDT) because he’s made the trek hundreds of times over the last three decades and that is the perfect departure time to ensure avoiding traffic for all 10 or so hours of the journey.
They arrived in Louisville shortly after 3 p.m. The colt bounded down the runway off the van, walked several laps around Barn 28 and settled into Stall 15.
Stout, Vera, Omaha Beach and the three other horses stopped twice. Once in Blytheville, Ark., and again at a plaza on the Western Kentucky Parkway.
“Just to make sure they had good fresh water,” Stout said. “He was perfect. Never heard him make a sound. Wouldn’t even know he was there.”
It’s 18 days until the big race, and Kentucky Derby Fever has absolutely arrived. Stout, 63, talked like somebody dealing with a case. He transports horses for Fox Hill Farm and former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones.
Stout said that he remembered driving Omaha Beach from a farm in Lexington to another in Ocala, Fla., when the colt was a yearling. Tuesday was the second time Stout was responsible for getting the colt where he needed to be.
“I’ve driven Hard Spun, Eight Belles and three fillies that won the Kentucky Oaks,” Stout said. “You can tell the good ones. They just carry themselves a little different.”
Omaha Beach carries himself a little different?
“Oh, yeah,” Stout said.
There were several questions to resolve. One was taken care of Tuesday.
Mike Smith rode Omaha Beach in two of his seven career starts. Yes, they were the colt’s last two races, but Smith had to decide if he planned to ride Omaha Beach or Roadster, the colt who won the Santa Anita Derby with Smith on April 6.
He picked Omaha Beach. When a jockey who won the Derby in 2005 on Giacomo and the Triple Crown last year on Justify picks a horse, racing insiders pay attention.
There is also the issue of Omaha Beach’s Churchill Downs residence. Barn 28 is where trainer Larry Jones keeps his horses. Omaha Beach was brought there because Jones has a strong connection with Fox Hill Farms, the colt’s owners.
But remember what I said about Derby Fever? It makes people ask strange questions like the one Churchill Downs senior communications director Darren Rogers was asked Tuesday.
Has a horse stabled in Barn 28 ever won the Kentucky Derby?
“Not according to the records I have,” Rogers said. “But they only go back to the Seventies.”
Stout, Vera and Omaha Beach did not seemed concerned.
“He’s a very good horse,” Vera said.
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