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Hovdey: Cup wins don’t come easily – except for Mandella
Allen Jerkens stood at the mile chute gap on the Churchill Downs backstretch and stared at the merciless autumn sky. He wore the expression of a man who’d just run over his own dog.
“I don’t know what the hell I’ve got to do to win one of these,” Jerkens said.
The “these” to which Jerkens referred was a Breeders’ Cup race. To that point, on the first day of November of 1994, there had been 10 editions of a Breeders’ Cup, with six races down and one to go in the 11th. A couple of hours earlier Jerkens had witnessed the awful sight of Sky Beauty, the best filly he’d ever trained, finish a dreary last of nine in the Distaff. Now he was awaiting his classy black colt Devil His Due, who would be taking on Concern, Best Pal, Tabasco Cat, Go for Gin and Bertrando in the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Even in such tall cotton, Devil His Due was held at no worse than second choice, despite the fact that in the 1993 Classic at Santa Anita the colt had finished eighth without much of a fuss. This time he finished 11th.
When a guy like Jerkens goes to the trouble of running a horse in a Breeders’ Cup race he means it. True, the fields are deep, and there is a lot of background noise. But as a final exam in the career of any trainer, the Breeders’ Cup has provided a true bill of worth.
Which is why Jerkens, a Hall of Famer since 1975 but stuck at 0 for 11 at the Cup, will keep on trying when he gets the right horse. That is why Canadian top gun Mark Casse, 0 for 10 at the Cup, is on hand this year with five runners, including Stephen Foster and Hawthorne Gold Cup winner Pool Play. Why Mike Maker, double tough in top company but 0 for 11 at the Cup, is relying Saturday on Joha to break the ice in the Juvenile Turf. Why Ken McPeek, whose 0 for 20 at the Cup belies his reputation with a good horse, is at Santa Anita with Atigun in the Marathon. And why John Sadler, a perennial California leader, is swinging with four well-regarded locals led by Lady of Shamrock and Switch. If one of them wins, Sadler will be 1 for 28 at the Breeders’ Cup.
Training the winner of a Breeders’ Cup race requires mastery of a situation over which an individual has only so much control. Between the logistics of training and travel, the depth of competition, and vagaries of weather and track condition, just getting the right animal to the paddock would seem to be a small victory.
Then why, every 10 years or so, does Richard Mandella make it all look so easy?
First there was 1993 at Santa Anita, when Mandella won the Breeders’ Cup Turf with Kotashaan and the Juvenile Fillies with Phone Chatter, in addition to a pair of small stakes on the undercard.
Then in 2003, at Santa Anita again, Mandella achieved the unthinkable, winning the Classic with Pleasantly Perfect, the Juvenile with Action This Day, the Juvenile Fillies with Halfbridled and the Turf with Johar in a dead heat with defending champ High Chaparral.
Putting this in perspective, to match Mandella’s achievement a trainer would need to win at minimum seven or eight of the 15 Breeders’ Cup races in this era of the two-day format. Todd Pletcher won three in 2010, but three’s a long way from seven or eight.
For the record, and the curious, Mandella shared the remaining headlines during his 2003 Breeders’ Cup blitz with trainers Dave Hofmans, Pascal Bary, Steve Margolis, Michael Stoute and Aidan O’Brien, who trained High Chaparral. Mandella enjoyed his fame all through that winter and well into 2004, granting interviews to worshipful foreign journalists and insisting he be referred to by his new street name, “Senor Quatro.”
Mandella will concede a degree of home-court advantage in winning his six Breeders’ Cup events. His barn is a short, leisurely stroll to the paddock. He will also note that running at Santa Anita didn’t help him a bit in 1986, when Phone Trick fractured a sesamoid the week before he would have been favored in the Sprint, or in 2009, when Crown of Thorns lost the Sprint by a lip, or in 2008, when he saddled a little gelding named Mine That Bird to finish last of 12 in the Juvenile, then bade him goodbye and good luck when he headed to another trainer in New Mexico.
Mandella has four ready to go this time around. Jimmy Creed, a late-bloomer, runs in the Sprint. Rumor, talented but of delicate constitution, gives Mandella a say in the Filly and Mare Sprint. And Moulin de Mougin, a daughter of Curlin and hillside course specialist Cambiocorsa, will be tested in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. He likes them all, but if you held his feet to the fire – and who hasn’t dreamed of doing that to a horse trainer? – Mandella would admit the real star of his show is the 2-year-old Beholder, who will try to give him a third victory in the Juvenile Fillies on Friday afternoon.
Beholder is a bay May foal and still very much a growing girl. Really growing. She takes up a good portion of her extra-wide stall on the back row of the Mandella barn. The gift of conformation allows her to put those long legs into efficient action quickly, as displayed in her maiden win at Del Mar and subsequent second, by a nose, to Executiveprivilege in the Del Mar Debutante.
“After that one I was training her for the two-turn race here,” Mandella said at his barn office this week, referring to the Chandelier Stakes of Sept. 29. “But she was just getting too stirred up. The minute I decided not to run she relaxed, almost as if she knew. I didn’t even have the other race in mind.”
The other race was a six-furlong allowance five days after the Chandelier. Beholder, a daughter of Henny Hughes owned by Wayne Hughes (no relation), won that one by 11 lengths, laying down a Beyer – 108 – that has the figures guys swooning.
“And beat the filly who was third in the Debutante,” Mandella added with a smile. “I think she just went out there and had fun.”
Executiveprivilege, who romped in the Chandelier, will face Beholder in the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile Filles, along with the East’s Dreaming of Julia and Kauai Katie and Alcibiades winner Spring in the Air. Mandella had toyed briefly with running Beholder in the Juvenile Sprint, but in the end it made no sense.
“Maybe she’s not meant to go two turns,” Mandella said. “I think she will, but I guess we’ll find out.
“I’ve been training for 38 years,” he added. “I ought to be able to get it right.”