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Omaha Beach’s scratch blurs fuzzy Kentucky Derby picture

Updated May 2, 2019 - 8:45 pm

Back to square one.

You could sense the minds whirling, the keyboards clacking and the pencils scratching late Wednesday — or at least I could — after the announcement that Omaha Beach, the 4-1 favorite in the $3 million Kentucky Derby, would be withdrawn from Saturday’s storied race due to a breathing problem.

It was a crushing disappointment to fans and hard-core horseplayers alike

For the latter, it meant shredding betting strategies developed since post positions were drawn on Tuesday, or just giving up. A few did suggest they would throw in towel, but most players I spoke with said they would at least look to see if new opportunities presented themselves.

Smart idea, I say. Where chaos exists, opportunity awaits.

I can’t tell you I’ve grasped all the implications of the change, but I offer these observations for your consideration:

■ Game Winner, the Bob Baffert-trained son of Candy Ride is an exceptional horse — maybe the best in the Derby field — and the new 9-2 favorite with Omaha Beach’s departure. But the chalk must start from a tough post — No. 15 — and will need every bit of artistry that jockey Joel Rosario can muster to avoid another wide trip that would cost him any chance of a win. Read on to see who I and the #RJhorseracing handicappers are going to be backing.

■ The scratch of Omaha Beach changes the pace picture, but how exactly will it play out? The Richard Mandella-trained colt likely would have either held the lead or been in hot pursuit before the field hit the second turn. Without him, Florida Derby winner Maximum Security could sneak away to another easy lead and take the field gate to wire unless a few other horses in the field with “sneaky” speed fill the void. The horses capable of doing that include Gray Magician, Cutting Humor, Spinoff and Bodexpress. My guess is no one will be sent hard to the front, which would further compromise the chances of come-from-behind horses like Country House, Win Win Win and Japanese entrant Master Fencer.

■ The weather may play a role in determining the outcome of the race, with various weather websites putting the chances of rain Saturday between 74 and 90 percent. If the track comes up wet, give War of Will, Maximum Security and Plus Que Parfait a boost, as all have shown a fondness for mud of some form. Meantime, downgrade the chances of Gray Magician, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress, all of whom have shown a distaste for it.

Enough for now. Let’s get on with the picking.

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicappers are doing double duty with the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks, the Derby equivalent for 3-year-old fillies, on Friday at Churchill Downs as well as the main event.

In the former, the crew is strongly backing Bellafina, the 2-1 morning line favorite, over Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk (8-1), who is 0-for-2 in a pair of starts this year, and Champagne Anyone (6-1).

In this speed-laden lineup, I think Bellafina may be vulnerable, so I’ll take a shot with the Steve Asmussen-trained Lady Apple (20-1), with Champagne Anyone and Bellafina in second and third, respectively.

In the Derby, the crew is siding against trainer Bob Baffert’s favored Game Winner (9-2), one of three entrants the Hall of Famer will saddle in the Derby, in favor of Tacitus (8-1). They have Game Winner second, narrowly ahead of Maximum Security (8-1).

“Tapit colt looked great in the Wood,” wrote crowd ‘capper Mas Yoshinaga of the group’s pick, referring to the Bill Mott-trained steel-gray son of Tapit’s win in the Wood Memorial on April 6 in his last start.

I’m also going to try to beat the favorite with Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards (15-1), who leaped out of the maiden ranks to vanquish more seasoned foes in that Grade 2 contest on March 23. The Brett Calhoun-trained colt will need to take another step forward to win here, but has the advantage of having run well over a sloppy Churchill Downs racetrack in his debut last year. I’ll take Improbable (5-1) and Maximum Security to fill out the other top slots.

New players are always welcome to join the #RJhorseracing handicappers in unraveling a pair of challenging equine puzzles each week. Simply drop me an email or follow me on Twitter and let me know you’d like to get involved.

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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