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Updated on 09/17/2011 1:09PM
Eyes turn to Mandella's bright lights
ARCADIA, Calif. - It's both the curse and delight of racing that as soon as you do something, you are asked to do it again. This is the position trainer Richard Mandella finds himself in as the nation's 2-year-olds prepare to turn 3 and embark on the road to the spring classics.
Mandella won both races for 2-year-olds on Breeders' Cup Day, completing exacting preparation with the colt Action This Day and the filly Halfbridled. They could not be more different - Halfbridled was precocious from Day One, Action This Day was on the accelerated learning program - but both peaked when it mattered.
That, however, is yesterday's news. The opening of Santa Anita's meeting on Friday marks the first tentative steps that this year's West Coast-based crop of 2-year-olds will take toward next spring's classics for 3-year-olds. It is Mandella - not perennial springtime celebrities Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas - who holds the strongest hand.
Action This Day is the best of Mandella's colts pointing for the April 3 Santa Anita Derby and May 1 Kentucky Derby. Mandella also has Minister Eric, who finished second to Action This Day in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Halfbridled, who completed an unbeaten season with her victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, towers - literally and figuratively - over the West's fillies who are eyeing the Santa Anita Oaks and then Kentucky Oaks.
Just as there has been a realignment in the hierarchy of the West's jockeys in the past two years, so too has a shift begun among trainers of 2-year-olds turning 3. Lukas is not close to the force he was five or 10 years ago. Baffert has several candidates, per usual, but so many have already been found wanting that he has begun an aggressive, nationwide search for lightly raced prospects, mirroring Bobby Frankel. Moving quickly to fill the gaps are Patrick Biancone and Rafael Becerra, who have top prospects among their colts and fillies.
All must get past King Richard, who has both Action This Day and Halfbridled readying for their 3-year-old debuts in 2004. Halfbridled likely will make her next start on Feb. 15, in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes, Mandella said.
"Her mind was getting a little tight by the Breeders' Cup. We had to loosen her up," said Mandella, who said Halfbridled had long, lazy mornings for more than one month before resuming a steady workout schedule.
Halfbridled is nimble and athletic despite her size. "She's as big as she was as a yearling," Mandella said. "She was an early maturer who grew up fast."
Action This Day, by contrast, was awkward and clumsy when he first came to the track to train last spring. But he progressed quickly, going from an unstarted maiden to a Breeders' Cup winner in three races spread over seven weeks. Because of that aggressive schedule, Mandella gave no thought to running Action This Day in last weekend's Hollywood Futurity.
"You couldn't ask him to do any more than he did in those three races. And" - pause here for a Mandella punch line - "we did want to run him next year." His next start is likely to be the Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 17.
"We pushed him along pretty good," Mandella said. "I think we accomplished a goal that was more than we set out for. I don't think he's gotten the kind of respect he deserves for what he did in those three races. Everybody keeps writing that the Breeders' Cup was a bad race, that Halfbridled went faster. Well, maybe she's in a league of her own. For what [Action This Day] did, how can you not be in awe? It's not like every 2-year-old can take back to last, come through the field like a halfback, and win with his ears pricked."
Mandella thinks, "There is a lot more there."
"He's getting bigger and classier-looking all the time," he said.
Minister Eric had a chip taken out of his left knee following the Breeders' Cup, and is "just starting back," Mandella said.
"He came out of the race with sore shins, and being as he was going to be down some, we took that chip out," Mandella said.
He said Minister Eric probably will not be ready to race until March. "He had five races as a 2-year-old, so we won't have to go back to ground zero."
Siphonizer, who won the Del Mar Futurity but finished 10th in the Breeders' Cup, needed throat surgery after the race and "hasn't started back yet," Mandella said. His participation in the spring classics is doubtful.
Baffert had such a disappointing crop of 2-year-old males that not one of them made the ballot sent to Eclipse Award voters. Quiet Cash - a son of Baffert's 1998 Derby winner, Real Quiet - was fourth in the Hollywood Futurity.
His best prospect might turn out to be the Wild Rush colt Wimbledon, who is still a maiden after two starts and of whom Baffert says, "I think he's the nuts." Odds On, a son of Baffert's 1997 Derby winner, Silver Charm, is another Baffert likes, but like many of his 2-year-olds, he took ill earlier this month and is "just coming back," Baffert said. He also likes Coldntight, who beat Action This Day in a maiden race at Del Mar before going to sidelines with sore shins.
Baffert has restocked his shelves by privately buying lightly raced runners. He said Bornwithit is the best of those prospects.
Among Baffert's fillies, Victory U. S. A. floundered as the favorite in Sunday's Hollywood Starlet. Class Above - all the rage before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies - as well as Yearly Report and newcomer Deb's Charm give Baffert plenty of hope.
Lukas's best filly is Be Gentle, who won the Alcibiades and Golden Rod stakes but was 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Biancone has the newest star colt in the unbeaten Lion Heart, who won last weekend's Hollywood Futurity. "He's a machine," Biancone said. Pomeroy, who was disqualified in controversial decision in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, is training at Santa Anita, but is pointing for the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, Biancone said.
Biancone has several top fillies, too. The unbeaten Whoopi Cat, who won Saratoga's Adirondack Stakes, has recovered from a foot abscess and should return in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez Stakes on Jan. 19. Salty Romance, a five-length winner of the Delta Princess at Delta Downs, will go in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel Stakes on Jan. 4, Biancone said.
Becerra, who with the backing of owner Stan Fulton is fast building one of this circuit's most powerful barns, has exciting prospects in the colt St Averil and the filly Rahy Dolly. They ran second in the Hollywood Futurity and Hollywood Starlet. For both, it was only their second start and first around two turns.
Others to watch include Dwango, a Bob Hess Jr.-trained Royal Academy colt who beat Wimbledon by six lengths in a Hollywood Park maiden race, and the filly Hollywood Story, who was rewarded for her persistence by capturing the Hollywood Starlet for her first victory after placing twice in graded stakes as a maiden.