10/28/2016 3:26PM

Hovdey: Mandella goes for another home sweet home run

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Richard Mandella has a hard time turning loose. Good horses seem to enter his barn and linger. The South American Sandpit hit the Mandella stable as a 3-year-old and left at age 10. Same deal for The Tin Man, who did some of his best work at 9, while the gray mare Bel’s Starlet was a precocious stakes winner at 2 and is still throwing strikes for Mandella as a 7-year-old.

For the past five seasons, Mandella and his crew have served at the pleasure of Beholder, and Beholder has taken them on an unforgettable ride, from the high points of a triumph like the 2015 Pacific Classic to the lows of a tough loss in the Kentucky Oaks and a nasty injury in her only New York experience.

Time after time, Beholder has come back from forced layoffs to hit the mark, earning a record of 17 wins and 6 seconds in 25 starts, more than $5 million in earnings, and a space on the wall of the Hall of Fame dusted and ready for her induction five years after she retires.

But there is no rest yet for a champion, and Beholder will be in for a fierce battle on Nov. 4 when she goes postward in the 33rd running of the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff against fellow Eclipse Award winners Songbird and Stellar Wind.

There’s a lot at stake. With a win, Beholder could join Goldikova as the only horses to win three Breeders’ Cup races since the series began in 1984. (Beholder won the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff in 2013.) With a win, she could nail down a fourth championship season, something no other mare has done in the history of the sport. And with a win, Beholder could erase the taste of the first three-race losing streak of her noble career, after seconds to Stellar Wind in the Clement Hirsch and the Zenyatta and to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic.

Beholder feels right at home at Santa Anita, where she has trained for the vast majority of her career. Much is made of a perceived home-court advantage for horses trained at the Breeders’ Cup site, although when it comes to this one, Mandella takes the idea to extremes.

Every one of Mandella’s eight Breeders’ Cup wins and two of his three seconds have come at Santa Anita, including his four-bagger in 2003 with Pleasantly Perfect, Johar, Action This Day, and Halfbridled. Kotashaan and Phone Chatter clinched championships at Santa Anita’s 1993 running of the Cup, while Beholder added Mandella’s most recent pair.

“There’s no doubt running out of your own stall has to help,” Mandella said. “But it’s not like I haven’t tried winning out of town.”

Mandella enters the 2016 Breeders’ Cup with 38 starters, 19 of those coming outside of California. The best of them was the second-place finish of Chamnp Pegasus in the 2010 Turf at Churchill Downs. That makes him a daunting 8 for 19 at Santa Anita.

This year, besides Beholder, Mandella will try to win his first Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Avenge, front-running winner of the Rodeo Drive at Santa Anita last time out.

Still, the story of the stable is Beholder. One week out from the Distaff, Mandella was busy ignoring all the elephants crowding his stable office.

At 6, Beholder figures to be ripe for retirement by owner Wayne Hughes. Mandella insisted the subject hadn’t come up, at least not within earshot of Beholder.

“We haven’t talked about it,” Mandella said. “We just do our job.”

There is also the issue of Beholder’s failure to answer the bell for the past two runnings of the Distaff – first in 2014 at Santa Anita when she spiked a temperature 12 days before the race, and then last year at Keeneland when she bled after a routine gallop following her arrival in Kentucky.

The idea that something might happen this time around to spoil the party nags like an itch nobody can scratch. Anyway, there’s not enough wood on which to knock when Mandella pronounces her healthy, fit, and ready for perhaps the toughest test of her career.

“She looks pretty good to me,” Mandella said Friday. “But then, I’m prejudiced.”

Beholder was loitering in her stall after a quiet morning, having worked a smooth three-quarters in 1:14 and change the day before under her Distaff jockey, Gary Stevens. Everything went by the book, except for what looked like a white handkerchief that escaped from beneath her saddle pad just behind the girth a few jumps into the work.

“They put a little piece of soft cotton under her pad because the girth tends to rub her there,” Mandella said. “Maybe that’s what came out. But nobody mentioned it to me.”

Probably just as well, and the work was just what the trainer wanted after a fast move the previous week.

“We weren’t testing her any,” Mandella noted. “Just like any race the week before, it was just to give her a nice spin around the block. She’ll get some good gallops now leading up to the race. But mostly I’ll just sit here and look at her.”

And if this is goodbye?

“It’ll leave a hole, for sure,” Mandella said. “But we’ve had that happen before. Never one quite like her, though. I really haven’t given it much thought. But when it does happen I sure will.”