Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Derby Favorite, Led by Commander Smith, Has Landed

By John Pricci

HOT SPRINGS—The timer had just clicked 23:08 for the opening quarter mile of the 2019 Derby prep-season finale, the last of the points-qualifying hundred-granders.

Staying off the inside, the gummiest part of Oaklawn Park’s biblically wet surface last Saturday, Mike Smith had just cleared the first turn racing three-paths wide of the rail.

But Money Mike wasn’t done thinking; there was more race-riding to do. He played the Arkansas Derby as if it were a match race, which it surely was on paper. Except they don’t run horse races on paper.

When Jose Ortiz, the quiet, thoughtfully aggressive riding star was named on Improbable, Omaha Beach’s match-race rival, a pitched battle would surely follow.

As most handicappers plotted the race, speedy pretenders would lead the early way, Ortiz and Improbable would likely track them, and Smith and Omaha Beach in kind would track Improbable.

But, wait, there’s more.

That’s when Smith did…well…the improbable. As the field straightened away into the backstretch, he shifted Omaha Beach into the four-path and made a middle move to vie for command.

Just after he reached the leader, Smith dropped his hands and his willing, obedient runner was content to stick his neck in front and remain there comfortably. It was a kind of speed duel, yet not really.

With Smith and his talented mount in control, Improbable and Ortiz would be forced to react to them, and not the other way around.

By the time the two rivals reached the half-mile pole, the race within a race began to unfold, snap-your-fingers fast-like. It was on.

In the end, it wasn’t as much of a battle as it was a squirmish. As the two rivals straightened away for home, the most anyone could accuse Smith of doing was “knuckling” on his colt, not quite a statue but mouse-like quiet.

Omaha Beach, a very, very good horse indeed, did the rest. He wouldn’t let Improbable go by. In midstretch, Smith lowered his body and got to urging Omaha Beach.

Alternately showing him a left-handed stick and applying a few encouraging strokes that would have pleased the strictest of new CHRB standards, the Hall of Fame-Mandella trainee reached the line in 1:49.91—racehorse time.

The surface yielded honest times all day. Mitole’s G3 Count Fleet went in 1:09.36. Quip’s G2 Oaklawn Park Handicap, for older horses, was run in 1:50.21, putting Omaha Beach’s effort in context.

Following the 23:08 opening gambit, Omaha Beach surged from fifth to first, offering splits of 24.42, 24.96, 25.07, and 12.38 for the final furlong.

That meant Smith was able to back down the subsequent half-mile to 49.38, rounded a complete turn in 25.07, before posting a final eighth that will win--what, eight or nine out of every 10 races run?

The victory margin was one length. It was another 5-3/4 lengths back to Country House, the only member of nine remaining rivals to attempt making up any ground at all. He was good; the exacta finishers were much better.

In a half-century of race watching, there were two local riding icons that I adored, worthy of lofty qualifications; Angel Cordero Jr. and Jerry Bailey.

Latter day, the Ramon Dominguez rode with that kind of rare dominance, so did Pat Day who, yes, waited a tad too long and failed to reach Sunday Silence in the 1989 “racing epic” Classic.

But like Shoemaker, who I could appreciate only during the twilight of his career and the great Pincay, who I didn’t appreciate enough because it was pre-ubiquitous simulcasting, they were the great horseback whisperers of my time.

With Saturday’s mid-race move--not that he needs my blessing--Mike Smith has made my “all-time” personal pantheon. Daring, controlled, measured, safe and strong race riding separates the very good from the very best.

Having the most willing and most talented winning partner beneath him, Smith, as he has done so often in recent years, again proved the difference.

Smith now has a Derby decision to make. Maybe that was his thinking behind the aggressiveness. He knows and felt the power of Roadster’s turf-like turn of foot but just how many gears does Omaha Beach have anyway? How can I best use them?

I would be very surprised if Mike Smith did not stick with Omaha Beach. Accepting the best mounts is about winning and loyalty. But, like Jordan, the Derby has different rules. Trainers know that all Derby mount bets are off.

Every rider wants to win every Derby; it’s just that simple. And Smith probably could have first call on every stakes horse Bob Baffert has at his disposal.

But how can one ever forget the trainer who provided his first ever Triple Crown champion? Then again, that was way back in 2018.

[Ed.Note]: After this was posted, Richard Mandella confirmed that Mike Smith would ride Omaha Beach and Bob Baffert has engaged Florent Geroux to partner with Roadster


I came to Hot Springs because seeing the Arkansas Derby and the “Racing Festival of the South” live were on my racing bucket list. I liked Hot Springs so much that I will return and, unlike Macarthur, it won’t take four years, God willing.

I was with a group of fans who rented a private infield tent. Then the rains came. And while Saturday’s event has become influential enough to be granted Grade 1 status, Oaklawn Park on this day was not ready for many of its fans.

It was not entirely Oaklawn’s fault; that problem lies at the doorstep of Intents Party Rentals, a company that bills itself as “Arkansas’ Finest Tent and Party Rental Company.”

The Arkansas Derby is the best excuse the Razorback State has to throw itself a party. The vibe comes replete with a New Orleans quintet that plays at the pleasure of the revelers, plastic cups in hand, adult beverages within.

While it is true that no one can control the weather, the track can control the environment. The 10-day forecast warned that torrents were expected and that calculation never changed. There was due diligence to be done. It wasn’t.

With 40 minutes until first post on Derby day, the tent TV sputtered, off, on, then off again from the moment we arrived. The tent was three-sided, the backside not staked down in place. Want to guess in which direction the wind was blowing?

There were three tables, all lacking table-cloths; two of them were soaked, including half the folding chairs, many of which were piled atop the tables. With temperatures hovering around 50 degrees, it was as cold as it was wet: Your basic nightmare.

Jennifer Hoyt and her media staffers could not have been kinder, providing Toni and I with shelter from the storm. I had press credentials but didn’t request press box work space since I write second-day stories, not unlike this one.

Our hosts, Chris and Donna Robbins--he the newest member of the HRI team--cried uncle the moment Mitole held off two-time defending Count Fleet champion Whitmore, texting they were uber-ing their way back home. We joined them shortly thereafter.

Not long after we left, all tents on the backside of the infield were empty.

After they were apprised the situation, and to their credit, the Intents Company offered our hosts either a full, unconditional refund, or a free tent for the 2020 Arkansas Derby, also known as doing the right thing.

Toward that end, a four-sided tent of clear plastic should be made available next year to go along with plans to raise the sightlines and add woodchips as an alternative to walking on wet, slippery grass that lead to the tents.

Heretofore, so should track management do all it can to enhance the fan experience. There appeared to be no quality control and they had more than enough warning of what was in store.

Oaklawn’s model works, and it works big time. They are on their way to new records, even without the extended meet that runs through Kentucky Derby day. It’s a betting product that the public has embraced.

On the drawing board are plans for a nine-figure hotel complex to be erected in the immediate future at the far end of the track’s expansive grounds on the south side of the grounds.

Oaklawn Park is poised to become a monster in this game, and that’s great. But when it comes to the infield fan experience, they need to order their priorities.

©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 16, 2019

Written by John Pricci

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