by J. Keeler Johnson
Saturday was a day for heart-pounding finishes at Santa Anita Park, and none quickened the pulses of horsemen and handicappers more than the tenacious comeback victory by Omaha Beach in the $300,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1). The Kentucky Derby (G1) morning-line favorite who missed the Triple Crown, and the summer highlights, is now on course for the Breeders’ Cup.
An entrapped epiglottis, corrective surgery, a summer illness, and an interrupted workout had kept Omaha Beach on the sidelines ever since his impressive victory in the April 13 Arkansas Derby (G1), but despite the long layoff, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella had the three-year-old son of War Front ready to roll in the Sprint Championship.
With jockey Mike Smith in the saddle, the Fox Hill Farms runner stalked in the early going, saving ground along the rail while 3-10 favorite Shancelot carved out quick fractions of :21.87 and :44.38. Turning for home, Omaha Beach slipped inside of Shancelot and courageously ran down the leader in the final strides, prevailing by a head while stopping the clock for six furlongs in a snappy 1:08.79.
“He broke extremely well, almost too well, he slipped a little leaving there but man he settled right in behind them really nice,” Smith told Santa Anita after the race. “He was loaded coming off that turn, Mr. Mandella really had him ready today. His last work was brilliant and he ran the way he worked.”
Omaha Beach demonstrated impressive versatility to cut back and win a Grade 1 sprint after showing top-level form over 1 1/8 miles in the spring.
“He’s a throwback to those classic horses. He can do anything,” Smith added. “Three quarters to a mile and a quarter. He’s extremely fast and he’s got tremendous stamina. When you need him to be quick, he is. He can do it all. The only thing that surprised me today was that I had to stay inside. His last work was his best one, no question. Today, he hit his best stride late.”
Although the race was a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), Omaha Beach has been mentioned as a candidate for the Dirt Mile (G1). Afterward Mandella said that the Classic (G1) itself is also in the mix.
“We were just going to let him run his race, I took two weeks to make a sprinter out of him, so it is not like we practiced a lot, but the really good horses can adapt to whatever you ask,” Mandella said. “I want to enjoy this one, but the (Breeders’ Cup) Sprint, the Mile and the mile and a quarter (Classic) are all possible…
“We’re gonna run in the Breeders’ Cup! For now I’ll just drink that big bottle of champagne and think it over.”
Earlier on the card, Lady Ninja proved to be a similarly determined winner of the 6 1/2-furlong L.A. Woman Stakes (G3), a stepping stone toward the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1). Saving ground under jockey Drayden Van Dyke, the Richard Baltas-trained daughter of Majesticperfection shifted out for racing room in the homestretch and gallantly wore down Selcourt (who posted fractions of :21.44 and :44.13 on the front end) to win by a nose in 1:16.79.
Lady Ninja races for a partnership comprised of Baltas, Harry Bederian, Harout Kamberian, and Hagop Nakkashian.
“She’s been in those stretch duels before and she’s won ’em,” Baltas said. “I know that she ran her race today. She’s been an over-achiever, that’s all I can tell you… She came from the inside today and she split horses and she ground it out. I’m happy.”
Van Dyke later returned to the winner’s circle aboard True Valour in the $200,000 City of Hope Mile Stakes (G2), a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). In a tremendous finish that saw the first five finishers separated by a half-length (and the top eight by just 1 1/2 lengths), True Valour ran down the forwardly placed Restrainedvengence, Prince Earl, and Kingly to prevail by a head. Kingly’s fast fractions of :22.58, :45.50, and 1:09.04 contributed to a quick final time of 1:32.82.
A son of Kodiac owned by Qatar Racing, True Valour was running for the first time since scoring a victory in the February 9 Thunder Road Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita.
“He’s such a cool horse he always comes up and shows a big showing. It was nice to get the head bob today,” winning trainer Simon Callaghan said. “He had some time off after the Thunder Road Stakes due to some minor bone bruising and we wanted to give him some time off. We felt we had him really fit today.”
Callaghan indicated True Valour would be considered for a start in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.