01/03/2005 12:00AM

Four-star day by any stretch


ARCADIA, Calif. - The last time a trainer won four races on the same day at Santa Anita Park, he celebrated by stripping off his coat and tie and rolling around in the grass outside his barn, then spent the next several months bathing in the afterglow of the remarkable achievement.

That was Richard Mandella, who dominated the 2003 Breeders' Cup program with his victories in the Juvenile, the Juvenile Fillies, the Turf (on a dead heat), and the Classic. If a trainer ever had a better day, it's a well-kept secret.

Still, four in a day at any level is a rare piece of work, and on Sunday at Santa Anita, it happened again. Doug O'Neill brought over horses for six of the nine races on the program and posed with four, including Areyoutalkintome after the featured El Conejo Handicap.

Unlike Mandella, however, O'Neill kept his jacket on, and there was nothing but mud to roll in, so he passed. As for the tie, O'Neill spent way too much on his pale green Hermes to go flinging it around, thank you.

Besides, O'Neill is a low-key guy who comprehends context. Three of his four winners were for $25,000 claiming prices - such is the quality of the Santa Anita product in these dark and rainy times - and the El Conejo was a quiet little hundred-grander with one of those Grade 3 decals, less in both purse and prestige than the Cal Cup Sprint won by Areyoutalkintome last October.

Mandella worked his magic before a Breeders' Cup crowd of 51,648 and an international television audience. By the time O'Neill won his fourth on Sunday, most of the 7,314 Santa Anita fans were already heading home. Still, the taste was sweet.

"Can you believe it?" said Leandro Mora, O'Neill's right-hand man. "It feels like that day with Brian at the Breeders' Cup."

His flashback was perfect. While serving as assistant to the late Brian Mayberry, Mora was a key part of a memorable November day at Gulfstream Park, when Mayberry horses won all three stakes on the 1989 Breeders' Cup undercard. All owned by Jan, Mace, and Samantha Siegel, their names were Tasteful T.V., Stormy but Valid, and Edgy Diplomat.

Asked if he could remember the last guy to win four at Santa Anita, O'Neill replied, "Hector Palma?" It wasn't a terrible guess, since that veteran horseman has had more than a few good days in the past, but O'Neill knew better. When reminded of Mandella's record, he cringed.

"I was hoping that wasn't the answer," he said.

For all his recent and steadily growing success, the 36-year-old O'Neill knows he has a lot to do before emerging from the shadow cast by Mandella. The teenaged O'Neill worked for Mandella briefly in 1986 at the Mandella offtrack stable run by Dan Hendricks.

"I was there for all of about four months," O'Neill said. "I remember thinking, 'If these horses could only talk, the things they could teach me.' "

O'Neill's listening skills have improved to the point where he has two full barns at Hollywood and Santa Anita and a long list of patrons who play at all levels of the game.

"We've got horses that run for $10,000 and horses who we're talking about running in million-dollar races," O'Neill said. "I love the challenge of all that."

O'Neill began winning races on Sunday in the second with Passion for Words, a 4-year-old daughter of Benchmark ridden by Jon Court who was claimed for $32,000 last May from Hendricks. No miracles here - Passion for Words began her career running for $40,000 and has won twice for O'Neill at $25,000.

"She just fits really good there," O'Neill said. "I think if we tried to sneak her up too much she'd go the wrong way."

O'Neill won the fourth race, a maiden $25,000, with Sienna's Lane, a 4-year-old daughter of Wild Wonder owned by Tony and Suzy Narducci and ridden by Jose Valdivia. O'Neill picked up Sienna's Lane upon the recent retirement of trainer Simon Bray, who took a full-time position as a commentator for TVG.

"She's all Simon," O'Neill said. "I feel guilty taking any credit for that one, since I've only had her about two weeks. They stopped on her last summer and did a myectomy at the farm - if she got any pressure at all she would shut down her airway and hyperventilate."

The victory of Areyoutalkintome under Tyler Baze in the El Conejo would have been a great way to end the day, but O'Neill had one more in store. Garland of Love, a 5-year-old daughter of Half a Year, came off a break of more than eight months to take the ninth race for a $25,000 maiden tag under Luis Jauregui. Garland of Love cost all of $3,200, which looks pretty good now that her younger half-sister Souvenir Gift is a multiple stakes winner.

"She had a little bit of a knee issue," O'Neill said. "So we stopped on her, gave her time, and she was training phenomenal. She was also training phenomenal before, then didn't run any good, so we weren't sure what to expect. But she really loved that goo."

O'Neill has opened a quick lead in the local standings, but the new year has been barely scratched.

"There's still long way to go," O'Neill said Monday. "About 362 days, in fact. The key is to be consistent."

And then, every once in a while, throw in a four-winner day.