10/26/2005 11:00PM

Change of scenery did trick for Taste of Paradise

Taste of Paradise won the Vosburgh in his first race outside California.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Who says you can't teach an old horse new tricks?

Certainly not trainer Gary Mandella, who has turned the 6-year-old Taste of Paradise from a very nice horse into one of the leading contenders behind the odds-on favorite, Lost in the Fog, in Saturday's $1,060,000 .

Taste of Paradise, a homebred owned by David Bloom, was always a late developer. He ran only once as a 2-year-old in 2001 and just four times at 3. A son of Conquistador Cielo, he began to flourish under the tutelage of John Sadler during his 4-year-old campaign in 2003, winning the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap and proving competitive in several other graded stakes. He also won a pair of stakes at 5, including the Grade 3 Vernon Underwood shortly after being turned over to Mandella during the fall of 2004.

But it was not until earlier this summer that Taste of Paradise, one of the elder statesman on this year's Breeders' Cup card, really began to flourish, following a tweaking in the way he was shod and a couple of key decisions by Mandella.

"He's always had foot problems," said Mandella, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. "His trouble stems from the wall of his feet, which are very thin. There's just not a lot of margin for error when he's shod. And it's a problem that gets worse with age. So I decided to exclusively use glue-on shoes this summer at Del Mar, and I think that made a significant change."

Mandella also put blinkers on Taste of Paradise for the first time at Del Mar, although he downplays the importance of the new equipment. But it was Mandella's decision to bring the stretch-running Taste of Paradise to New York for the first time in his 27-race career for the Grade 1 Vosburgh Handicap earlier this month that may have been the key to the horse's newfound success.

Sent off one of the outsiders in the Vosburgh, Taste of Paradise toiled near the back of the pack for the opening half of the six-furlong dash, then exploded leaving the turn to run down the leaders and easily draw off to a two-length victory under jockey Garrett Gomez. The performance earned Taste of Paradise a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 110.

"I don't think the blinker change was nearly as significant as the surface and configuration change he received coming to Belmont Park," explained Mandella. "I just happened to be the one willing to try getting him off those tracks in California and taking him to New York. The California tracks are just not very forgiving to poor-footed horses."

Taste of Paradise's unexpected victory in the Vosburgh gave the 33-year-old Mandella his first Grade 1 victory. Mandella, who has 30 horses under his care on the West Coast, decided to strike out on his own in 2001 after serving two years as an analyst for the TVG network. He began his racetrack career working for his father during high school before serving as a full-time assistant for his dad from 1995 to 1999. Among the major winners he saddled for his father during that period were Wild Rush in the Metropolitan Handicap, Atticus in the Oaklawn Handicap, Redattore in the Eddie Read Handicap, and Sandpit in the Hollywood Turf Handicap.

"I enjoyed my tenure with TVG, but after a couple of years I felt the job just wasn't rewarding enough," said Mandella. "I guess it might not make sense to some people, giving up what was a cushy five-day-a-week job to work seven days on the track, but it wasn't the same as working hands- on with the horses. I really missed that."

Mandella is looking forward to his first Breeders' Cup with Taste of Paradise, and likes the situation he finds himself in coming up to the race.

"I'm not going in under the pressure of having an overwhelming favorite who the public thinks can't win by enough, but on the other hand I'm not worried people are thinking I've put my horse in a spot he doesn't belong," said Mandella. "And if we were fortunate to win on Saturday, it would mean an awful lot, because it always feels good, whether it's a Breeders' Cup or any other race, when you've made big plans a long way in advance and things happen to work out."