Updated on 09/17/2011 9:55PM

His chances? Mostly sunny

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - A light drizzle was falling on the backstretch late Thursday morning as Richard Mandella sat at his office desk, teasing the stable cat and working on his deployments and flanking maneuvers.

"Clare, let's try this," Mandella said, addressing exercise rider and crack office manager Clare Byrnes. "Dutrow said he wouldn't come if it was raining. Call him up. Tell him you're from the weather service, and you heard he was concerned. Tell him it's raining, inch and a quarter, maybe more. Tell him if the horse is in the air, they better turn the plane around."

It was a sly idea, cooked up by an active mind bent on winning the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday. And who knows? It might have worked, except for the fact that the Dutrow in question - Richard Jr. - is no East Coast tinhorn blinded by the dollars on display. Saint Liam, romping winner of the Donn, was safely on his way, dispatched by Dutrow from his Florida stable and scheduled to land that afternoon, and there was nothing Mandella could do about it.

Instead, he did the next best thing, which was to step outside into the emerging sunshine and admire his brace of Handicap starters, Congrats and Rock Hard Ten, as they prepared for a schooling session in the Santa Anita paddock. With two such beasts, both training like Pegasus, Mandella would appear to have a tight hold on winning his third Santa Anita Handicap since 1997, the year he finished one-two-three with Siphon, Sandpit, and Gentlemen.

But that would be wrong. This 67th running of California's greatest horse race is deep and wide, and attractive from all angles. Beyond Saint Liam and the Mandella boys, there are such humorless mercenaries as Truly a Judge, Lundy's Liability, Imperialism, and Island Fashion entered for the mile and a quarter race. Handicap conditions call for a spread of 12 pounds, from longshot Californian to 122-pound topweight Saint Liam. Chances are, though, the winner won't come merely from among the best on paper. He will need to be the most determined on the day.

Mandella has been running horses in the Santa Anita Handicap since 1984, and almost yearly since 1994 when Region finished eighth of eight behind The Wicked North. In 1995 the trainer fell just short when cranky old Best Pal missed by a head and Dare and Go ran third. Mandella followed his 1997 sweep by winning again in 1998, this time with Malek, although odds-on Gentlemen missed the board. Since then, there has been a second and a cluster of thirds, but no cigar. Mandella hopes things change Saturday, and they probably will if his horses run to their looks.

Congrats led the way to the paddock session, dapples on his dapples, looking every bit the star of any self-respecting stable. Big-boned and heavyset, with a low-slung barrel and handsome head, the son of A.P. Indy won the San Pasqual on a sloppy track and then was parked wide for most of the San Antonio, finishing a frustrated third.

Rock Hard Ten followed along behind, led by groom Felipe Pulido on a gentle shank and swaying his head from side to side, enjoying the view. By now the jury is in - someone, somewhere is missing a statue, otherwise how can a horse who looks like this be explained? Tall, wrapped in dark chocolate and unaware of his own strength, Rock Hard Ten has become a star as much for his appearance as for his performances, which include victories in the Malibu Stakes and Strub Stakes at the meet.

"When we schooled before his last race, he was being really good, like a big old puppy dog," Mandella said. "I told Felipe to go ahead and slip off the lipchain. Felipe said, 'You sure, boss?' I said sure, it would be okay."

The ensuing explosion could be heard in the foothills. Rock Hard Ten clouded up and threatened to rain all over Mandella, his groom, and any number of fixed objects in the immediate area. The lipchain was quickly replaced, thereafter to be released only when Rock Hard Ten went under starter's orders.

Mandella has been training his Handicap runners only since last fall. Congrats came to him from an Eastern career with Shug McGaughey, while Rock Hard Ten was taken through his eventful 3-year-old season of 2004 by Jason Orman. Because of this, Mandella concedes that he is still getting to know both horses. He pointed out, however, that in the case of Rock Hard Ten, he has always had an affinity for the family.

"I tried hard to buy his sire, Kris S., when he went through the California 2-year-olds in training sale," Mandella said, harking back to the winter of 1979. "I only had a small stable then, so I wasn't able to put together enough people to get him. As it turned out, I was in the same barn as Jim Sacco, who ended up training him.

"I know they come in all shapes and sizes," Mandella added. "But Kris S. was my idea of what a racehorse should look like. And this colt reminds me more of Kris S. than any I've seen since."

He wouldn't say it in so many words, but Mandella is giving every indication that Rock Hard Ten has the right stuff to win the Santa Anita Handicap, and Congrats isn't far behind. Just then his cell phone rang with a call from Dell Hancock of Claiborne Farm, part of the Congrats ownership, confirming arrangements.

"You still in Florida?" Mandella asked, shading his eyes from the sun. The answer was yes. "Do me a favor. Before you leave, stop by Dutrow's barn and tell him it's really raining hard out here."