Each day leading up to the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, “The Pressbox’s” Publisher and Editor, Gene McLean, will be on the backside of Churchill Downs. We will be talking to some of the major players in the game’s best-ever “Daily Double,” (KY Oaks — KY Derby), and we will be posting some audio interviews on the site. Take a listen to today’s interview with Nick Bush, one of the most respected exercise riders in the sport today. We also got a few minutes to tape our chat with Hall of Fame Trainer Richard Mandella. We will be taking a few photos. And, we will be making some observations, along the way. Here’s a look at our daily diary on Saturday, April 27:

(Trainer Richard Mandella chats with the media types on Saturday morning after Omaha Beach’s final work for the 2019 Kentucky Derby / Photo by Gene McLean)

Richard Mandella: 

Spend one minute with Thoroughbred trainer and gentleman extraordinaire Richard Mandella. Just 60 seconds with the Hall of Fame trainer, and, more importantly, the Hall of Fame person. That’s all it takes. That’s all the time you will need.

No matter what horse you may be trekking, watching, handicapping, and touting, you will be swayed. You will be converted. You will be convinced.

Going into the minute, you may love Mandella’s horse — who is the very calm, cool, collected and very accomplished Omaha Beach — or you may prefer another horse of the 20 that will line up in just one week for the 145th version of the “Run for the Roses.”

Coming out of the minute?

If you have a heart and soul, you will be cheering for Richard Mandella.

If you have a sense of decency, and enjoy feeling good about people and that the world is, in truth, inherently good? You will be rooting for Richard Mandella.

If you love to see good things happen to good people; that good things truly do happen to those that wait; and that hard work, patience, and doing the job the right way does, in fact, pay off in the end? You will walk away wishing nothing but the best for his man; this HORSE-man.

That’s what happened to me on Saturday morning.

To be honest? I had a conversion experience.

It all started innocently enough.

In a daze, I was just walking the barn area at Churchill Downs. Ran into some great friends. Exchanged a few pleasantries, hugs, handshakes and smiles. And, stumbled along, lost in the beauty of  the morning and a dense fog of thoughts of Derbies past and of one Derby future.

Just wandering and wondering. Until I saw a small gathering at the end of the barn, and caught a glimpse of both the horse — Omaha Beach — and the man — Richard Mandella. I immediately headed their way, just like a midnight moth to a flood light.

I had watched Omaha Beach’s impressive victories in both a division of the Rebel Stakes — when he beat a very game Game Winner — and the Arkansas Derby — when he beat Improbable. But I had never seen the impressive son of War Front up close, and personable. And, I just had to take a look at the horse that Mike Smith chose to ride over Bob Baffert’s Roadster. Had to.

And, I had always heard and read about Richard Mandella. I had read about how the now 68-year-old gent had learned the game and sport from his father, who had learned his trade as a farrier. I had learned about how Richard Mandella had forged his own path in this industry and sport, hammering out a job on a ranch as a teenager and later working as an assistant to Lefty Nickerson in New York, and later with Roger Braugh in Texas. And, I knew of some of the horses that Mandella had trained so well — like the fabulous Phone Trick, Dare and Go, Pleasantly Perfect, Siphon, Gentlemen, Malek, Johar, Halfbridled, Action this Day, and, of course, the grand Beholder.

But I had never met the man, who was inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2001. I had never had a conversation with the chap, who won four races in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup. I had never shook his hand.

I had to meet both horse, and Horse-man.

Had to.

So, I strode over to the group and saddled up as close as I could. And, just watched for awhile.

Omaha Beach — who looks and acts a lot more like an American Pharoah-type than, say, a robust, and enormous Justify — was walking the shed row.

The horse’s color shined. Almost as bright as the early morning sun. His eye was sharp. So, too, seemed his mind. Like he had done so dynamically in winning the Arkansas Derby, Omaha Beach made the early morning walk with a calmness and coolness that resembled Tiger Woods knocking in the final putt to win the Masters.

It seemed as if he knew he was special, and the folks gathered there were his gallery. It seemed as if he was as comfortable as a fat man (blush) on his couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Classy horse.

“He’s always been that way,” said Mandella, a bit later. “He’s always been classy. He just seems to know that he is special.”

And, so too, does his trainer.

Not a trip around the barn did the horse make that the trainer didn’t eyeball his latest, and greatest pupil. Each stride. Each stop. Each gulp of water. Each adjustment of his horse blanket. They were all done under the careful eye of his friend, handler, mentor and boss.

A couple of times, Mandella left his friends and walked alongside the horse. He fiddled with his blanket and adjusted his halter. One time, Omaha Beach seemed to lay his head over on the shoulder of his constant ally. A few seconds later, went hot walker and horse moved on, Mandella tapped the colt on his stifle like a basketball coach would swat a rump or two with encouragement.

It was easy to see.

The two shared a moment. But it was more than that, too. The two shared a bond.

Classy horse? True. Classy horseman. For sure.

“I do think there’s a special relationship built between the horse and the trainer,” said Mandella, who talks with a calm, country style that drips with sincerity and class. “It would be sad, really, if you didn’t. It’s what makes this all truly special.”

If you haven’t already, go to the audio that we have posted on the site. Listen to Mandella for yourself. The man loves what he does. And, at the very least, Omaha Beach loves the man for how it does it.

Easy to see. And, easy to hear in his words

In a week, just 7 days from today, Churchll Downs will play host to the 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby. There will be three trainers already inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame that will have horses entered and running. All three will be trying to win the Kentucky Derby.

There is Bill Mott, who will saddle both Tacitus and Country House. There is Shug McGaughey, who will have Code of Honor. And, there will be Richard Mandella.

Mott and Mandella will be trying to walk into that elusive and majestic winner’s circle for the first time. McGaughey has tasted that victory lap once before — when he won the “Run for the Roses” with Orb.

Six times, Mandella has entered a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Six times, he has left Churchill Downs winless.

In 1984, Bedouin ran 15th. In 1994, Soul of the Matter ran 5th. In 1995, Afternoon Deelites was 8th. In 1999, Desert Hero was 13th. In 2004, he had both Action This Day and Minister Eric. The former ran 6th. The latter was 16th.

Now, 15 years later, he is back. Again. With Omaha Beach. With a major chance to finally make his way to the winner’s circle, and taste the victory of a lifetime.

When asked how it would feel to win the Kentucky Derby, Mandella smiled. And, then he said it:

“Special. It would be special.”

As soon as I turned the recorder off and walked away, I just realized that is exactly how I felt, too. Special.

I suddenly understood why so many respect, enjoy, like and admire this gentleman horse trainer.

And, I knew then that if our sport’s skeptics, doubters, and haters could only meet and chat with this man, they would have a deeper appreciation for the greatest sport ever conceived.

As soon as I turned the recorder off and walked away, I soon realized, too, that now I was hoping for Richard Mandella and Omaha Beach to win this Kentucky Derby. I knew then I would be cheering for the two of them.

And, all it took was about a minute, or two.

(War of Will winning the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Mark Casse:

Trainer Mark Casse was in a bit of a hurry as he headed out of his barn on the Churchill Downs backside early Saturday morning. With binoculars in hand, he was busting a move to get to the track to watch a few more of his prized pupils work over the main dirt track.

“Hey guys, I don’t have time to talk right now. I have to go watch another set work. Sorry,” he said, as he talked over his shoulder.

Then, he stopped. On a dime.

“Unless we can make it short?” he asked.

Without waiting for an answer, he hustled back to a group of 4 or 5 — who wanted to see what the trainer had to say about War of Will’s work over the Churchill Downs track early Saturday.

“What can I say,” Casse started right in on the “Other” son of War Front in this year’s KY Derby. “It was awesome. Couldn’t have been any better. A wow work for me. Wow.”

Then, just like that, Casse was off to the races. So to speak.

But the words were good to hear. The horse was even better to see.

All Winter, War of Will was the talk of New Orleans. He was a “Wow” horse. After being switched to the main dirt track, he ripped off impressive win after impressive win. And, he catapulted onto the leaderboard for this year’s Derby.

He won the G3 LeComte Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 19 by a widening and easy 4 lengths.

Next time out, in the G2 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16, he won by an easy 21/4 lengths over Bill Mott’s Country House — who will also contest this year’s Derby.

He was winning easily. He was impressing all. He was a “Wow Horse.”

Until March 23. Until the G2 Louisiana Derby. As soon as he came out of the starting gate for the 11/8-mile contest, it seemed as if War of Will was side-swiped. His back end swerved like he was hydroplaning on a wet asphalt surface. And, despite all his might, he couldn’t seem to get body and brain back together again.

As soon as the race was over, Casse was clearly concerned that his prized steed may have wrenched his back. Or, worse yet, injured himself mightily.

Instead, after a full medical examination, it was decided that he simply slipped and slid. And, that he was healthy and healed to go back into training.

On Saturday, War of Will got his fourth published work since the LA Derby Debacle. He got his first test over the Churchill Downs’ track since he broke his maiden in Louisville last Fall.

And, he was awesome.

The colt went a half mile in :47.60 — which was the bullet move out of 78 horses to time test the distance.

The horse seemed happy.

The trainer was ecstatic.

“You saw it,” Casse said, with a smile of both relief and jubilation. “He is ready.”

(Jay Privman, from twitter.com)

Jay Privman:

Ran into my long-time friend Jay Privman — writer extraordinaire and columnist for “The Daily Racing Form” — on the Churchill Downs backside this morning. Been a long time between drinks of water for the both of us. But it was like yesterday, too.

Met Jay for the first time when I covered horse racing for “The Lexington Herald-Leader” back in the late 1970s. Went out to Santa Anita to cover the Santa Anita Derby. And, the two of us met for the first time in the barn of the late, great trainer Charlie Whittingham.

Developed a great friendship with Jay from that first encounter. Developed a deeper respect and admiration for the man in the days, months, and years to come.

There wasn’t a reporter around with a deeper sense of task, or dedication to fact and professionalism. There wasn’t a writer around with a more profound commitment to getting things right, while, at the same time, getting along. And, never once, did Jay ever back away from a tough story, or back down from a tough personality.

That was nearly 4 decades ago. Jay is still around. Hustling info. Writing stories. Covering the industry better than anyone in the game. The game has changed dramatically. So, too, has the newspaper business. Jay Privman, though, has not.

He’s still the best. And, I’m glad I got a chance to tell him that this morning.

Trainer Ian Wilkes

Gene McLean (right) and Trainer Ian Wilkes talk about McCracken. Photo courtesy Aaron Bacon.

Ian Wilkes:

Not a better chap on the backside of any racetrack in the world. Former assistant to Carl Nafzger has become one of the better trainers in the world, too.

Missed him at the barn this morning. Ian had headed out to the Starlight Training Center, where he keeps some other horses in training, as well. But I caught up with him via text, and asked about his 3YO filly — Champagne Anyone.

The talented gal is a daughter of Street Sense, who Ian was around a lot on the racetrack, as well. And, the filly is also heading into this year’s Kentucky Oaks off an impressive win in the G2 Gulfstream Park Oaks in her last start.

I asked:

“Everything good,” with the filly?

Ian immediately texted back:

“All good mate.”

It was if I could hear the words myself. What a wonderful fellow. Another chap that you just can’t help but like.

As I walked to my car and collected my thoughts a bit, a smile drew across my face.

What a wonderful morning.

Met Richard Mandella.

Reconnected with Jay Privman.

Chatted with Ian Wilkes.

All good people. All really good people.

What a wonderful morning.