04/26/2004 11:00PM

Big guys winless in biggest race


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Put up a major race for older horses and chances are Bobby Frankel and Richard Mandella will be there. The two trainers have thrived with older runners throughout their careers, which began on opposite coasts and in differing circumstances but now parallel one another.

Frankel was the street-wise New Yorker who began with claiming horses before building a powerful stable. Mandella, whose father trained horses and was a blacksmith, is a native of California who also has a deep, strong barn. Both are based in California, but often send horses out of town; last month, they ran one-two in the Dubai World Cup, with Mandella's Pleasantly Perfect defeating Frankel's Medaglia d'Oro.

Mandella has had the upper hand at the Breeders' Cup. He has won six Breeders' Cup races from just 26 starters, including a record four victories last fall at Santa Anita. Frankel, by contrast, lost with his first 37 Breeders' Cup starters, though he has won twice in the last three years.

Both men are in the Hall of Fame. And both have never won the Kentucky Derby.

Unlike many of their brethren, neither Frankel nor Mandella has pursued the Derby with an all-consuming passion. Frankel has had just six starters, Mandella a mere four. And though both have runners in Saturday's 130th Derby at Churchill Downs, they will not be among the favorites.

Frankel sends out Master David, who was second most recently in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Mandella has both Action This Day and Minister Eric, who ran one-two in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but are a combined 1 for 6 since then.

On Tuesday, Master David and Minister Eric had their final works in preparation for the Derby. Master David, with jockey Joe Deegan, covered five furlongs in 1:00.80 while working with stablemate Coded Warning. Minister Eric drilled a half-mile in 50 seconds with jockey Pat Day. Both works came after the renovation break, over a fast track, on a clear, cool morning.

For Frankel, this year's Derby is a sharp contrast from last year, when he brought in the race's strong favorite, Empire Maker. A week before the Derby, Empire Maker bruised a foot, which made for a stressful week for Frankel.

"It was a headache," Frankel said Tuesday morning. "I feel good this year. I'm real relaxed. I'm not supposed to win, and I'm not supposed to lose. I'm just in there with a chance, like a lot of other people."

Frankel said last year's experience was invaluable, though painful.

"I've been a little more aggressive with this horse," Frankel said. "I was a little too conservative last year. When it's all said and done, it wasn't meant to be."

Master David and Empire Maker are starkly different animals. Master David is compact and unimposing; Frankel estimates he weighs about 900 pounds. Empire Maker weighed about 1,100 pounds.

Minister Eric has taken an unusual route to the Derby. Because he made so much money in the Breeders' Cup, graded earnings were not a concern this spring. So, Mandella has run him in three straight allowance races. He won his most recent start, at Keeneland.

"That was the plan, assuming everything went perfect. Of the three horses," Mandella said, referring also to Action This Day and Oaks entrant Halfbridled, "he was the easiest one. He doesn't have anyone over a barrel, but he's a fighter and a scrapper. I expect improvement from him."

Action This Day is winless since his championship-clinching victory in the Breeders' Cup. But his late-running style and recent treatment for a back injury give Mandella hope he can return to best form when it counts most.

"In my mind, he's a true mile-and-a-quarter horse," Mandella said.

* There were no defections from the list of horses expected to enter the Derby on Wednesday. If the field remains intact, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten will be excluded, since 20 other runners have earned more money in graded stakes races.

* Song of the Sword was sent by van from Keeneland to Churchill Downs.

* Castledale and St Averil got their first feel of the track after flying from California on Monday. St Averil has bar shoes on his front hooves, but trainer Rafael Becerra said they will be replaced with conventional racing plates for the Derby. "His feet are very sensitive. His frogs are tender, and so is the bulb of his heel," Becerra said. "We did this before the San Felipe," which St Averil won. "We went back to them, and he has responded real well."

* Tapit was scheduled to fly here on Wednesday from Maryland. Eddington will fly from New York if he gets into the race. The last Derby horse to arrive will be Lion Heart, who will travel by van from Keeneland on Saturday morning.

* The weather could take a turn for the worse on Derby Day. The National Weather Service forecast calls for thunderstorms, with a high of 63 degrees.