LOS ANGELES -- Six months ago, Richard Mandella sat next to Dr. Foster Northrop at an impromptu news conference at Churchill Downs. That combination, trainer and veterinarian, is rarely a good sign.
Stoically, Mandella explained why Omaha Beach, the morning-line favorite, would not be running in the Kentucky Derby. A trapped epiglottis, a throat issue that is not life threatening, cost the trainer his best shot at winning the Derby in his more than four-decade career.
"It was devastating, to be honest," Mandella, 68, said at the time. "I have done this for 45 years, so, I have seen this movie and starred in it. ... But I had a nice note from (owner-breeder) Arthur Hancock, and he said: 'Richard, (Charlie) Whittingham was 73 when he won his first one.' So, who am I to think I should be doing this now?"
Omaha Beach's projected three-week recovery turned into five months. Various small issues delayed, but never canceled, his return to racing. Omaha Beach will run Saturday at Santa Anita as the 8-5 favorite in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Omaha Beach's racing career began not with a flash but as a slow grind. He started as a turf horse.
"(Omaha Beach) finally said to me after his last grass race, 'Boss, you ought to run on the grass, not me,' " Mandella likes to say.
The horse's fourth race was on dirt and he finished second by half a length. Then something clicked, and Feb. 2 he won a maiden race by nine lengths. Expectations were high and he was entered in the Rebel Stakes, which had an overcrowded field and was split into two divisions because Santa Anita had closed over a rash of horse deaths. Otherwise, he would have run in the San Felipe Stakes, which never took place this year.
He won the Rebel by a nose over Game Winner, the 2-year-old Eclipse Award champion who at the time was the presumptive Kentucky Derby favorite. About a month later, Omaha Beach won the Arkansas Derby by a length, beating Improbable and Country House, the horse that would be awarded the Kentucky Derby victory after the disqualification of Maximum Security.
Then it was on to Kentucky, where cheers became tears for his connections when the throat problem was detected. Still, Mandella has no regrets about how the year turned out.
"It's been a great year," Mandella said Tuesday after watching Omaha Beach's final workout before Saturday's race. "As a horse trainer, you learn to live with disappointments. We have plenty of practice at that.