10/05/2005 12:00AM

Big weekend for Mandella club

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - The graduation ceremony from the University of Richard Mandella is simple and direct, reflecting the man himself.

There is no pomp and very little circumstance. Emotions are kept in check. The graduate is allowed to wash the tack and rake the shed row one last time, sweep the office floor, and detail Mandella's SUV. He, or she, is presented with a souvenir rub rag and a hoof pick. After a brief review of workers' compensation insurance laws, goodbyes are said and the locks are changed.

Apparently, a degree from the UofRM comes with clout. Evidence spilled across the racing landscape over the weekend when the master and three of his former grasshoppers collected major prizes.

On Saturday, Mandella marked his territory by winning the Goodwood Handicap with Rock Hard Ten, but not before the results from New York arrived with the news that Gary Mandella, son and putative heir, won the Vosburgh with Taste of Paradise, and Beau Greely (class of '96) took the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Borrego. Then, back at Santa Anita on Sunday, Dan Hendricks (class of '87) followed suit in the Norfolk Stakes with Brother Derek.

Clearly, a trend was developing. Handicappers, thinking they were onto something, combed the entries looking for more Mandella alumni. Alas, Becky Witzman, last seen by the greater public at Mandella's side when the barn swept four Breeders' Cup races in 2003, has moved on to a media career as an increasingly polished presenter for Magna's HRTV network, while Chris Baker, Mandella's right hand through the era of 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan, is busy these days improving the breed as manager of Edward Evans's Spring Hill Farm in Virginia.

That left Jedd Josephson, Mandella's laconic assistant from the 1980's, now an established veteran of the northern California tour.

"Yeah," wondered King Richard. "What was he doing?"

In fact, Josephson was first to strike last week, winning a six-furlong claiming race on Thursday at Bay Meadows with the 3-year-old gelding Brooker. And while the purse of $20,300 didn't exactly stack up to the $1 million Gold Cup pot, let the fine print show that Josephson was also part-owner of his winner, and Brooker was claimed for $16,000, which is not bad, considering that Josephson originally took him for $8,000.

"Aw, I'm not really part of that club now," Josephson deadpanned over the phone, referring to the high-stakes world of Hendricks, Greely, and Mandella the younger. "I think I'm out."

"Don't feel sorry for Jedd," Gary Mandella advised from his Hollywood Park headquarters. "He was laying it down pretty good earlier this year with that filly he owns, Midwife." True enough. Midwife, racing for owner-trainer Jedd Josephson, has won three allowance races and a small stakes while earning nearly $130,000.

Richard Mandella, a Hall of Famer since 2001, does not intentionally set out to mold his assistants into fire-breathing trainers. It just seems to work out that way. The gravitational pull of the Mandella barn is strong - like Berkeley or Harvard - and top people tend to end up there. It was that way even in the beginning, when Mandella was a public trainer in his early 20's.

"My first assistant, before Danny Hendricks, was Bobby Suggs," Mandella recalled. "I was just starting out, and Elliott Burch was stabled across from me at Santa Anita with the Rokeby horses. It was all very friendly. In fact, Elliott kept taking Bobby to lunch. At the end of the meet, Bob explained to me that Mr. Burch had offered him a pretty nice job in New York. After Elliott retired, Bob ended up training privately for Mr. Vanderbilt in Maryland."

Lesson learned. There is no such thing as a free lunch, particularly when you're not invited.

"I didn't get too upset at all," Mandella added. "It was a good opportunity for Bob. What really ticked me off, though, is that he took my two best grooms with him."

Inside look at stable

The University of Mandella does not offer a correspondence course, but there is a new documentary released on DVD that comes brilliantly close.

It is called "On the Muscle - Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable," produced and directed by the award-winning documentarians Bill Yarhaus and Robin Rosenthal. For more than a year, Yarhaus and Rosenthal were granted unprecedented access to the Mandella operation, from the predawn barn rituals to the gut-wrenching excitement of the racing afternoons. What has emerged, in three hour-long parts, is nothing less than the definitive primer on high-stakes training.

Brimming with detail, "On the Muscle" is also a treat to the eye. The high-quality video format lends immediacy, as the plot follows a cast of specific Mandella runners through the trials and tribulations of a typical campaign. There is plenty of illness, injury, and unpredictable strife - all the elements of good drama - along with the occasional happy ending. Above all, "On the Muscle" is a story of resilient people who devote their lives to Thoroughbred racehorses.

Mandella and the filmmakers will be on hand at the Santa Anita Park gift shop this Saturday to autograph copies of "On the Muscle," from 10:45 a.m. until noon.