08/23/2004 12:00AM

Big horse cures barn's grouch


DEL MAR, Calif. - At half past six on Sunday evening, as the breeze from the Pacific freshened and the sun disappeared behind the Del Mar grandstand, Richard Mandella stood at one end of his barn while a massive figure filled the opening at the other. Leading with his distinctive blaze - a snowball with a trickling tail - Pleasantly Perfect loomed like a great bay semi, glided smoothly into his stall, then dove into his hay rack before his groom, Umberto Correa, could hoist it into place. Mandella wore a look of blessed relief.

"I really don't know why I felt so much pressure with this race," he said. "But I did."

It is not like Mandella to wear his heart on his sleeve, which is why the trainer did not dwell on recent strife. He didn't have to. It was all part of the public record.

On July 7, his close friend and former assistant, Dan Hendricks, was rendered quadriplegic in a motocross accident. On July 23, his close friend and first-string stable rider, Alex Solis, fractured a vertebra in a crash at Del Mar. This was followed by Pleasantly Perfect's loss in the Aug. 1 San Diego Handicap, without Solis, which was hardly the way the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup should behave. Oh, and did someone mention the fact that the Mandella stable had yet to win a race at the meet? Only everyone.

At such times, Mandella tends to turn left, as in Lefty Nickerson. Mentor, best friend, and a wise-cracking, two-legged Rosetta Stone, Nickerson was so perfectly tapped into the cosmic joke of training Thoroughbreds that he could reduce the most ambitious young buckaroo to a confused stew of healthy self-doubt with a casual quip, knowing full well he was doing the kid a favor.

The best of those kids was Richard Mandella, who stood alongside Nickerson more than 30 years ago, outside their Aqueduct barn on a warm spring day, shirts off and grazing a couple of grateful horses. Nickerson considered his young assistant for a moment, then let one rip.

"I feel sorry for you, Dick," the older man said.

"What?" Mandella was stunned. "Are you kidding? I'm living it up."

Nickerson sighed. The truth, sometimes, was not readily apparent. "You're going to think that every young person is going to want to be a trainer, just like you do," Nickerson said. "And your heart's going to be broken so many times."

The lesson took a long time to sink in, but when it did, Mandella never forgot. Nickerson nailed it, boiling down the bitter distance between the reach and the grasp in a business that keeps brutal score. For all the obvious reasons, Mandella thought about it again last Sunday, on the day Pleasantly Perfect raised the stable from the cold swamp of a dreary Del Mar meet by winning the $1 million Pacific Classic.

"I wish he was still here, because Lefty was so right on," Mandella said. Nickerson died last March. "A lot of people talk about how they want to be this or that. But they don't have the . . . I'm not sure what. They just don't. I'm not saying it's good or bad, right or wrong. That's just the way it is."

Mandella has it. Never mind finding the right words. His Hall of Fame record is inspiring, and his work with the 6-year-old Pleasantly Perfect - a virtual write-off at age 3 - has been an ongoing tribute to the craft. In the last 20 years, only Cigar has accomplished as much as a mature stallion.

And yet, Mandella knows he can't do it alone, which is why he admits to playing Richard the Grouch around the barn lately. The significance of small transgressions was mounting with every unlucky loss. Right or wrong, just as Nickerson predicted, Mandella felt isolated in his passionate dedication to detail - was he the only one who truly cared? - and it was breaking his heart.

Of course, Mandella is not exactly the kind of guy to form a circle and chant when things go bad. His cure for snapping out of an 0-for-Del Mar nightmare was not going to be a group hug. This is, after all, the same salty crew who won an unprecedented four Breeders' Cup races just 10 months ago, and it was no time for hand-holding as far as the boss was concerned.

"My help, you know, they're used to winning big races," Mandella said. "It's like a doctor who sees death. After a while is starts to mean nothing. They get numb to it. They need something to snap them out of it, a kick in the butt or something. I went off a couple times, trying to shake things up. But I don't know. I've never really figured out the right way to do it."

In the end, it was the big horse himself who cleared the cobwebs and put the ship back on keel. Pleasantly Perfect, casting his giant shadow, turned back Perfect Drift and Total Impact to win the Classic by a comfortable length, retaining his rightful place at the top of America's older runners. As a bonus, the Classic gave the Mandella barn a breather, and the boss a reason to smile.

"We've had a hell of a time lately," Mandella said. "Now this old guy comes through to save the day. I guess I'll be nice tomorrow."