Mandella has home-court advantage in Breeders' Cup

Richard Mandella likes to think of himself as a man of the world. Or at least a man of the Thoroughbred racing world. The California native has run horses in the Orient, the Middle East, and South America. He has won major races in New York, Florida, Kentucky, and Chicago. Clearly, traveling never comes up as an issue.

In this spirit he was asked, not long ago, if the Breeders’ Cup would be better served if it were held more often in places other than Santa Anita Park, where it is scheduled to take place on Nov. 1 and 2 for the fourth time in the past six years, with yet another renewal set for 2014. He gave his answer with all of a second’s thought.

“You’re kidding, right?” came the reply.

Okay, so Mandella was the wrong guy to ask.

When it comes to the all-time trainers whose names are synonymous with success in the Breeders’ Cup, Mandella’s ranks among those who first come to mind. In terms of sheer volume, Wayne Lukas is far and away the leader, as he has saddled 156 starters and won 19 events. Shug McGaughey (9 for 56) and Bill Mott (9 for 73) are the best of the rest, with Aiden O’Brien (7 for 83) and Todd Pletcher (7 for 95) not far behind. They’ve all won their Breeders’ Cup races everywhere, whether in New York, California, and Kentucky, or at Woodbine, Lone Star, or Monmouth Park.

Mandella has won seven as well, and he has done it from 36 starters, giving him the best winning percentage of any trainer who has had at least 20 Breeders’ Cup runners. The difference is, all seven have been won at Santa Anita, a display of home-field chutzpah unmatched in the history of the game.

“How do you figure that?” Mandella said, mystified by the trend. “It’s not like we don’t ship around the world and run well enough. But come Breeders’ Cup, we can’t ship out of Santa Anita?”

When the big show returns in three weeks, Mandella will be poised to win two more. He has the champion filly Beholder primed to meet defending two-time champion Royal Delta in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and the trainer apparently has figured out the willful, exciting, South American turf horse Indy Point, who will face defending winner Little Mike and others in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

On a recent morning, Mandella sat at his Santa Anita stable office desk plotting his Breeders’ Cup training backward from Nov. 1 and 2. The wall to his right was decorated by images of his seven Breeders’ Cup wins, including the two from 1993 (Phone Chatter and Kotashaan), the unprecedented four from 2003 (Halfbridled, Action This Day, Johar, and Pleasantly Perfect), and Beholder’s victory from 2012 in the Juvenile Fillies.

Like the Mandella winners of the past, Beholder and Indy Point will be comfortable with the sounds and smells of their full-time home in Santa Anita’s Barn 4 during Breeders’ Cup week. On the day they race, they will wake up in the stalls they live in for 10 months of the year. Later on they will have a short walk of about 50 yards to the receiving barn, then on to the saddling paddock they know so well. Is it an advantage? Of course it is.

“A lot of my winners have been 2-year-olds,” Mandella said. “If it helps anybody to be at home, it would be a 2-year-old. Action This Day, for instance, I wouldn’t have been in a hurry to take him somewhere, even though at the time he was doing the best of the three I had in the race. Phone Chatter and Halfbridled were proven. But Beholder, I might have been a little bit concerned about taking her somewhere because she’s so excitable. She’s not easy.”

Kotashaan, Mandella’s winner of the 1993 Turf, was already a European traveler who closed his career with a close second in the Japan Cup. Pleasantly Perfect added the 2004 Dubai World Cup to his Breeders’ Cup Classic of 2003. Clearly, these were hardened, experienced competitors who did not require home cooking to do their best.

As for Johar, who finished in a dead heat with High Chaparral in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Turf, he was on a roll of three straight major stakes wins at the beginning of 2003 and had Mandella planning an ambitious campaign when he was sidelined through the spring and most of the summer. The Turf was his third race off the layoff, a classic big-effort pattern.

“It just happened to be the time of year he came back and was ready to run a big race,” Mandella said.

At a Loss Everywhere Else

Breeders’ Cup winners usually make sense, even at a price, because practically every horse has credentials to burn. Losing, though, is lonely business, best dealt with in a private moment after late morning rounds. While Mandella is at a loss to explain why he has never won a Breeders’ Cup race anywhere but Santa Anita, he knows exactly why each horse lost, and if anything could have been done to change the outcome.

There have been 19 Mandella runners in Breeders’ Cups not run at Santa Anita, plus another 10 at Santa Anita that somehow did not find the winner’s circle. His history with the event began inauspiciously at Hollywood Park in 1984, five days after his 34th birthday, with Pirate’s Glow, a California-bred filly bred and owned by Martin Wygod, Mandella’s primary patron at the time.

Pirate’s Glow had just finished second to Folk Art in the Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita. Finishing well behind them that day were Fran’s Valentine and Lady’s Secret. Folk Art was injured before she could compete in that first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and Lady’s Secret passed the race. Turning into the Hollywood stretch, Fernando Toro was riding a tight line outside horses tracking the leaders, Tiltilating and Fine Spirit, when Pat Valenzuela and Fran’s Valentine swerved sharply and slammed the Mandella filly from the left.

Pirate’s Glow was out of the race, while Fran’s Valentine went on to finish first by a half-length over Outstandingly, only to be disqualified for interference.

“I’m not saying she was going to win the race,” Mandella said of his filly. “But it looked like she was going to get a piece of it. Fortunately, she wasn’t seriously hurt.”

In the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Belmont Park, Mandella was confident Corwyn Bay would run back to his win in what is now the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. The players agreed, sending him off a close second choice to Europe’s Dayjur. Any chance Corwyn Bay had, though, disappeared when Mr. Nickerson suffered a heart attack and fell in front of him on the backstretch. Corwyn Bay swerved and lost momentum, but he was the lucky one. Shaker Knit, coming along from behind, tumbled over Mr. Nickerson and was fatally injured.

In 1996, at Woodbine, Mandella attacked the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Atticus, who set a world record for a mile on turf earlier that year, and Dare and Go, the horse who ended Cigar’s 16-race winning streak that summer in the Pacific Classic. Neither one hit the board.

“I should have tried the Mile with Atticus,” Mandella said. “A mile and a quarter really wasn’t his game. But Dare and Go – he was a real stay-at-home horse. He would read your mind from his stall, just looking at my office, and he’d get himself excited over nothing. To get the best out of him you really had to balance everything so he came in there smooth. It was like trying to catch that one clear spot on a radio dial. He must have got wind too early we were going to Canada. But on his day, well, you saw what he did at Del Mar.”

These are not sob stories. They are merely a representation of the reality all horsemen face when trying to win the toughest races on the American calendar.

Soul of the Matter had dicey feet that stung to high heaven on Belmont’s sealed, sloppy track in 1995 when he finished a valiant fourth to Cigar in the Classic. Four months later, Soul of the Matter gave Cigar the race of his life in the Dubai World Cup. Gentlemen bled and stopped badly in the 1998 Classic, aging his trainer, wasting an $800,000 supplementary fee, and squandering a chance at Horse of the Year honors. Then there was Pleasantly Perfect, the defending champ and reigning winner of the Dubai World Cup, who could do no better than finish third to Ghostzapper and Roses in May in the 2004 Classic at Lone Star Park.

“That’s a picture of me walking him right after he arrived at Lone Star,” Mandella said, nodding toward a handsome image of the trainer and his most successful horse.

“Neither one of us were real happy that day,” Mandella said. “But I’d seen it coming for a while. After winning in Dubai, I gave him a break, and he was good during the summer for the Pacific Classic. But then he started going the other way on me. He went from being a big, sweet baby to nervous and tense, over the top. And he was looking at mares, for the first time in his life. He finished third on class alone.”

High Hopes this Year

Do not think for a moment that Mandella is sailing blissfully into another backyard Breeders’ Cup, confident of padding his stats. Beholder, fresh from a win over elders in the Zenyatta Stakes, is a handful whenever she leaves her stall, while Indy Point, so impressive in the John Henry Turf Championship, must win another big one to erase the memory of his utter failure as the favorite under Gary Stevens in the Arlington Million.

“That was humbling,” Mandella said. “It was more my fault than anything. Coming off his mile win at Del Mar, we thought he might be a little fresh, and with what looked like a lot of pace it would be better to treat him like a European horse and switch him off after getting out of the gate before he got into gear. So Gary took a hold of him, then they all backed up in his face. He ended up reaching up with his back feet and tried to grab both quarters. Walking home he was sore, and I thought he might have broken a cannon bone.”

Luckily, Indy Point emerged from the Million with only superficial cuts . . . and a confused trainer. Mandella changed equipment, going with a type of ring bit, called a Houghton bit, to give Stevens a slightly different level of control. The turnaround in the John Henry was dramatic.

“He really ran his race the other day,” Mandella said. “He dropped down and looked just like he did at Del Mar, really enjoying himself. I’ve had horses do some terrible things like the Million and still win, so you have to wonder, ‘Was that enough to make him run so bad?’

“So you do your job and tell yourself you’ve fixed things. But inside you’re wondering, ‘I hope this sumbitch doesn’t remember that.’ It’s awful nice when you come back and it cleans up quick.”

As for Beholder, Mandella looks upon the filly as a temperamental diva whose demands are more than worth the trouble.
“I love her,” Mandella said. “Whatever it takes, we’ll try and figure out.”

Beholder wears earplugs and earmuffs to deaden distractions. Mandella even tried ear-buds that played soothing music.

“She didn’t like that at all,” he said. “Wondered where it was coming from. When she was younger, she would rear up, but now she’s gone to bucking. Given the choice, I’d rather she bucked.

“People think we pump these horses up to make them run fast,” Mandella noted. “But these are Thoroughbreds, the best and the fastest, and most of the time we’re calming them down so they can be perform to their ability. Each one is different, and once they learn they’ve found that balance.”

Home court or not, Mandella is just happy to be in with a couple of solid chances this time around from a pared-down stable of about 35 horses.

“That’s kind of unusual, from a barn of our size,” Mandella said. “But as far as being at Santa Anita, I’m not so sure it matters where you win one these races as long as you do. You just better bring the best horse.”

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