April 15 (UPI) -- The long and winding road to the 125th Kentucky Derby is over and the field is tentatively set for May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Omaha Beach needed a top-three finish in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby just to qualify for the May 4 Kentucky Derby. But after winning in Arkansas, he may find himself the favorite in Louisville.
The War Front colt tracked the pace around the first turn over the sloppy Oaklawn Park oval. Jockey Mike Smith pushed the button early, sending Omaha Beach to the lead before the midway point on the backstretch, giving trainer Richard Mandella a moment of concern. That was premature, as Smith and Omaha Beach then controlled the race, hit the stretch in full stride and held off a late bid by Improbable to win by 1 length.
Country House went by some tiring rivals to finish third and he, Improbable and Omaha Beach all earned enough points to qualify for the Run for the Roses. None would have make the Louisville field without a top-three placing in Arkansas.
"He looked like he was well within himself," Mandella said of Omaha Beach, "and Mike just let him enjoy his job, 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."
"We'd already ran in the slop at home, so that wasn't much of a concern. He's a very tractable horse. I don't think we need to pick a surface."
Mandella, 68, has never won the Kentucky Derby. Soul of the Matter finished fifth in 1994 -- his best showing from six starts. Improbable's trainer, Bob Baffert, has qualified three for this year's Run for the Roses, a race he's won five times, the last two with eventual Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify.
Mandella said Baffert had been giving him tips on winning the Derby until Omaha Beach started showing signs of being good enough.
"Baffert, he quit helping me when I got a real shot," Mandella quipped Sunday morning.
Baffert said he was relieved Improbable made the cut.
"It's a wide-open Derby this year," Baffert said. "I just feel thankful. It could have been disastrous. Really had some anxious moments there. I think he ran a great race and he's going to improve off this. I've been bringing him along, getting him ready by running him and so he'll move forward off of it."
One of Baffert's most anxious moments came as Improbable, loaded first into the No. 1 stall, started acting up as the others entered the gate. Baffert said the addition of blinkers to Improbable's equipment is "probably why he acted up in the gate." Don't look for them when he walks onto the Churchill Downs track.
Country House's trainer, Bill Mott, said his colt came out of the race well and he will consult with the owners about plans. But, he said, "It was one of the goals, to get enough points to go to the Derby. Now, we've got to assess the situation and see if it makes sense to enter up."
Another who has a decision to make is Mike Smith, who not only rides Omaha Beach for Mandella but also Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster for Baffert. If Omaha Beach isn't the favorite at post time on May 4, Roadster probably will be.
"It's a lovely decision to have," said Smith, known as "Big Money Mike". "We're going to go back and see how everyone comes back and go from there. Evaluate the situation. Then my agent will make the decision. That's why I pay him."
Meanwhile, in Kentucky ...
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Stonesteet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland just possibly could have an impact on the Kentucky Derby field despite the victory by 12-1 long shot Owendale.
Anothertwistafate finished second in the Lexington, earning 8 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and improving his total to 38, good for No. 23 on the leaderboard. Three higher points-earners would have to drop out of the 20-horse field to make room for Anothertwistafate. Sueno, who finished third Saturday, picked up 4 points for a total of 32 and stands No. 24, requiring four defections to make the big race.
Owendale raced well back in the Lexington, emerged from the pack in the stretch run and roared away to a 1 3/4-lengths victory. Knicks Go, second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but a disappointment since, finished fourth. Neither he nor Owendale has enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Owendale, an Into Mischief colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.14 under Florent Geroux. His only previous effort in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series resulted in an eighth-place finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his previous start for trainer Brad Cox. The Lexington win was his third from eight career starts.
Road to Kentucky Oaks
Lady Apple stalked the pace in Friday's $500,000 Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park, squirted through a narrow opening between the rail and pacesetting favorite Motion Emotion and went on to win by 1 length over that rival. The victory was good for a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate for the Curlin filly, who finished the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.88 with Ricardo Santana Jr. up.
Lady Apple took five tries to get to the winner's circle, finally doing the job Feb. 7 in her 3-year-old debut. The Steve Asmussen-trained filly has not lost since.
"Ricardo gave her a dream trip and the filly showed tremendous heart," Asmussen said. "She broke smoothly. He worked out the perfect trip for her. I think the only option was the fence and she showed a lot of heart to go through there."
Motion Emotion winds up at No. 9 on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard, also qualified for a spot on the first Friday in May. Bellafina, the Santa Anita Oaks winner, is the heavy favorite for the Oaks.