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Omaha Beach joins exclusive company as a dual winner of the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes, Oaklawn Park's major preps for the Triple Crown.

The War Front colt, a one-length winner Saturday before a wet but enthusiastic crowd estimated at 45,000, is the third horse in four years to win both races and the 14th since both have appeared on Oaklawn's stakes schedule.

Omaha Beach joins a group including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (2015), Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones (2004), Preakness winners Curlin (2007) and Pine Bluff (1992) and Belmont Stakes winners Victory Gallop (1998) and Temperence Hill (1980).

Magnum Moon won both races last year but was retired because of injury after the Kentucky Derby. Others include Lawyer Ron, a 4-year-old champion for trainer Todd Pletcher after dominating the Oaklawn preps in 2006 for the late Bob Holthus, and Arkansas-owned Demons Begone, post-time favorite for the 1987 Derby at Churchill Downs.

Omaha Beach has won three in a row, the last two giving him 137.5 points toward a starting spot in the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Neither the colt's owner, Delaware native Rick Porter, nor its trainer, Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, has won the big one, although Porter came close to the roses twice with runners-up Hard Spun in 2007 and the ill-fated filly Eight Belles in 2008.

Beating juvenile champion Game Winner by a nose in the Rebel and outdueling Improbable, also trained by Bob Baffert, in the Arkansas Derby, Porter has a good line on Omaha Beach (a retired Delaware automobile dealer and cancer survivor, Porter also raced Normandy Invasion, fourth in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, which like Omaha Beach honors the United States' successful D-Day invasion of Europe in June 1944).

"I think the horse certainly fits with the other horses," Porter said after the Arkansas Derby. "We'll see how he comes out of the race and see how things are going. We'll decide, probably, (Saturday night, regarding the Kentucky Derby)."

Omaha Beach has learned to win the close ones after breaking his maiden Feb. 2 by nine lengths in the slop at Santa Anita, Mandella's home base. The colt turned back Game Winner, then making his 3-year-old debut, in the March 16 Rebel over a fast-rated mile and sixteenth. Stretching out to a mile and eighth, Omaha Beach led at every call in the Arkansas Derby, which had been run on a fast track every year since 2004, and successfully withstood Improbable's stretch-long challenge under new jockey Jose Ortiz.

"I was hoping he'd hang in there (in the stretch), and he surely did," Mandella said. "He's learned to fight it out."

Mandella flew in from California on Tuesday and supervised Omaha Beach's training throughout Derby week at Oaklawn. The 2-1 choice in the morning line when entries were drawn Wednesday, Omaha Beach went off a slight favorite, paying $5.40 to win and giving Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith his third Arkansas Derby victory.

"Since the Rebel, he has grown and is bigger," said Mandella, hoping to improve his 0-for-6 Kentucky Derby record. "Either that or the mud is making him look bigger. I'm not sure which, but we're sure excited. I hope he stays as good as he's been, because he has improved all year long."

Despite acting up in the post parade, requiring that he be reloaded in the starting gate, Improbable earned 40 points for the Derby, giving him 65 and Hall of Fame Baffert three horses in the race (Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster is the other).

Watching the race in California, Baffert said he was "happy with the way he ran. I was a little bit worried in the starting gate. ... I had a few moments there of maybe he gas going to rear up or do something and get left. Luckily, they unloaded him and put him back, and he left there well. I thought Jose Ortiz did a good job of riding him. We got beat by a good horse."

Third-place finisher Country House collected 20 points, securing a berth in the Churchill Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has one of the probable favorites in Tacitus, saying "we"ll talk to the owners" about the next race for Country House. Although Country House was no threat to the top two, "That's what we were looking for, and he ran well," Mott said.

Two-time meet winner Laughing Fox got up for fourth at 27-1, the highest finish for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen's four Derby starters. "He might just be a little bit below those other horses," said Alex Lieblong, who along with wife Joann, of Conway, owns the Union Rags colt.

Along with Game Winner, Rebel first-division winner Long Range Toddy and locally raced Cutting Humor have qualified for the Derby and are sure to have Oaklawn eyes watching at Churchill Downs in three weeks.

Oaklawn's season ends May 4 in conjunction with the Kentucky Derby and includes the inaugural $300,000 Oaklawn Invitational, from which the winner automatically qualifies for the May 18 Preakness at Pimlico.

One possible starter for the Preakness prep emerged Saturday when Breaking News gained his maiden victory by three lengths under Joel Rosario. Trained by Ron Moquett, the Mineshaft colt races for Oaklawn president Louis Cella and brother John, a member of Oaklawn's board of directors.

"We'll see the trainer says about what's next for him," Louis Cella said, "although that invitational would be nice."

Sports on 04/15/2019

Print Headline: Oaklawn sends strong cast to Ky.

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