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Jockey Mike Smith to ride Omaha Beach in Kentucky Derby

Jockey Mike Smith has accomplished many things in his Hall of Fame career, but until now he had never decided who should be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby.

Well, the 53-year-old can cross that accomplishment off his bucket list.

He announced Tuesday that he will ride Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach in the Kentucky Derby on May 4 rather than Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster.

It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Smith, who rides regularly for Roadster’s powerhouse trainer, Bob Baffert, in Southern California and piloted Justify to the Triple Crown for him last year.

The fact that Smith and his agent, Brad Pegram, apparently think the Richard Mandella-trained Omaha Beach is a better horse than Roadster spoke volumes to Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, who said beforehand that he would follow Smith in picking the morning line favorite in the Run for the Roses.

That means you can expect Omaha Beach to be the favorite when post positions for the race are drawn April 30, likely at a still square price of around 9-2.

Don’t feel too bad for Baffert, who will saddle three top contenders and quickly secured the services of Florent Geroux to replace Smith on Roadster. The Frenchman is a great understudy, given he knows the Churchill Downs track like the back of his hand.

We’ll look more at the jockey-go-round next week, as several other top riders still have not announced their mounts.

In the meantime, I promised last week a look Derby preps and compare speed figures for contenders.

Key Derby preps

Here are the three Derby preps I rank highest:

The Arkansas Derby. Omaha Beach made an early move to the front and then fought off the Baffert-trained Improbable the length of the stretch to win by a length. Two things stood out: The winner appears to be a “push button” horse who can accelerate and then relax whenever Smith gives him his cues. The final three-eighths of a mile went in a fast :37.45, but more impressive was how easily the son of War Front appeared to be traveling while holding Improbable safe. Improbable did lose ground, but the visual impression suggests he’ll need to take a big step forward to turn the tables in Louisville.

The Wood Memorial. Winner Tacitus proved he has the toughness to get it done in the Derby, getting bounced around bad early but rallying to run down a game Tax. The final three-eighths time of 39.07 wasn’t scintillating, but the take-no-prisoners mentality that the Bill Mott-trained son of Tapit showed certainly was.

The Santa Anita Derby. Roadster’s half-length victory over stablemate Game Winner was impressive, as the Quality Road colt made up about 5½ lengths in the stretch under a perfectly timed ride by Smith. The final three-eighths went in :39.08, but remember that was over a Santa Anita track that has been playing slow since its recent renovation. Since Baffert was high on Roadster before he was sidelined by a throat problem, I think it’s too soon to count him out despite Smith’s defection.

Finally, I promised you a speed figure comparison, and here it is.

I’ll spare you my screed about speed figs of last year, but remember, playing the Derby (or any race, for that matter) is about projecting how fast they’ll run rather than simply backing the horse who has run fastest so far. The runners who have been brought along carefully with the long-term goal in mind are the ones you want to focus on.

#RJhorseracing featured races

Just because it’s relatively quiet in racing in the week’s leading up to the Derby, you can’t expect the #RJhorseracing handicapping crew to take a week off.

This week, we tackled two challenging turf races Saturday at Keeneland and Laurel Park, doubly so because both tracks are expected to see rain right before they are run.

In the Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland, a 1½-mile test for 4-year-olds and up, the crowd ’cappers are on board with 8-5 morning line favorite Zulu Alpha, with Soglio (4-1) and Better Picture (9-2) filling out the top three.

I’ll try to beat Zulu Alpha with a bomb, Vettori Kin (20-1), a graded stakes winner at the distance who also handled soft going in his native Brazil. Zulu Alpha is my second pick, with Soglio third.

In the Henry S. Clark, a turf mile for 3-year-olds and up, the crew likes morning line second choice Irish Strait (2-1). They see Real Story (5-1) and Phlash Phelps (9-2) rounding out the trifecta.

Several crew members noted that the complexion of the race could change drastically if it is taken off the turf. In that case, main track only entrant Cordmaker (9-5) would surge to near the top.

“If on the main track, Cordmaker should be solid to win, followed by John Jones (3-1),” wrote crowd ’capper Michael Kazcer.

I agree on Cordmaker if the race is off. If it stays on the lawn, I’ll take a shot with Just Howard (9-2), who’s 2-for-2 on the soft Laurel turf, over Irish Strait and Flatlined (15-1).

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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