Omaha Beach turns back Improbable in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) - Coady Photography

Omaha Beach turns back Improbable in the Arkansas Derby (G1) – Coady Photography

The final prep race for the 2019 Kentucky Derby produced a thrilling finish, as Omaha Beach and Improbable battled to the wire in a strong renewal of the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park.

Wet weather may have produced a sloppy, sealed track, but it did little to dampen the quality of the race. There’s a lot to digest, but my primary takeaways are trending along these lines….

  1. Omaha Beach is Tactical and Versatile

The ability to make a move at any point in a race and sustain it is the mark of a good horse, and Omaha Beach clearly has that ability. The son of War Front was perfectly ridden by Mike Smith, settling in fifth place through an opening quarter-mile in :23.08 before launching a sweeping bid on the first turn to seize the lead through a half-mile in :47.50.

You can argue the move might have been premature, but gaining ground into that modest :24.42 second quarter-mile wound up giving Omaha Beach the tactical advantage he needed to hold off Improbable. But give a lot of credit to Omaha Beach. Plenty of horses would falter after making such a move, but Omaha Beach settled down nicely, re-engaged when challenged by Improbable, and still managed to run the final furlong in :12.38 to win by a length and earn a 101 Beyer. That big number was hardly surprising, since Omaha Beach’s final time of 1:49.91 was 0.3 seconds faster than the 4-year-old Quip ran while winning the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) earlier on the card.

  1. Improbable is Still Slow into Stride

The addition of blinkers and a rider switch to Jose Ortiz didn’t seem to make a difference in the performance of Improbable. After acting up in the gate and delaying the start of the race, Improbable broke alertly and briefly seemed poised to challenge for the lead, but then in the blink of an eye he was passed by five other runners and wound up racing in mid-pack heading into the first turn.

To Improbable’s credit, he steadily worked his way back into contention, drew within a length of Omaha Beach halfway through the race and reached nearly even terms on the far turn. But in the end, Omaha Beach turned back the challenge, in large part because his superior tactical speed enabled him to secure a better early position than Improbable.

This isn’t the first time that Improbable has been sluggish in the opening furlong of a race. To some extent he’s shown this tendency in all five of his starts, which could be a concern in the Kentucky Derby. He’ll have to hope for an outside draw at Churchill Downs or risk getting buried inside during the wild run to the first turn.

  1. Long Range Toddy Doesn’t Care for Mud?

Prior to the Arkansas Derby, Long Range Toddy had been a picture of consistency, even defeating Improbable by a neck in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn in March. But on Saturday he faltered badly, retreating from a pace-tracking trip to finish sixth, beaten nearly 15 lengths.

So what went wrong? Long Range Toddy’s regression was severe, and since there’s been no news of an injury that would explain his poor showing, I’m inclined to believe that he didn’t care for the sloppy, sealed track. All of Long Range Toddy’s previous races were run on dry tracks, and if he didn’t care for the unfamiliar footing in the Arkansas Derby, that could explain why he had nothing to offer when the real running began.

  1. This Was the Strongest Derby Prep Race

With an honest pace, a triple-digit winning Beyer, and a driving finish between two highly regarded runners, it’s safe to conclude that the Arkansas Derby was the strongest Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race of 2019.

What’s exciting about Omaha Beach is that he is progressing and has that all-important tactical speed, an asset that has been so critical to success in recent Kentucky Derbies. We’ll see how I feel three weeks from now, but as of today I’d rank Omaha Beach as the horse to beat on the first Saturday in May.