11/01/2017 10:36AM

Hovdey: Mott, Mandella tangle again 21 years after making history

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Bill Mott has a top contender in the Breeders' Cup Distaff in Elate.

Bill Mott was asked to recall the last time he was at Del Mar.

“Well, I’ve sent a number of horses here,” he said, standing near his Breeders’ Cup contingent on the Del Mar backstretch. “Somebody told me we had something like nine wins from 19 runners in the last 20 years.”

Swell. Happy for you, Bill, but you didn’t answer the question. When was the last time William I. Mott, of Mobridge, S.D., was at Del Mar racetrack in Del Mar, Calif.?

Mott unleashed the grin that’s probably helped him get away with a lot more than he should have through the years.

“Yes, well, something happened in 1996 that made me think maybe they’d run better if I stayed away,” he said.

Bad memories die hard. In terms of karma alone, Mott hardly can be blamed for giving the seaside track a wide berth in the wake of the events of Aug. 10, 1996, when he watched Cigar’s 16-race winning streak go belly up in a Pacific Classic that drew what was then a record Del Mar crowd of 44,181.

“My friend Mr. Mandella really gave me a good California schooling that day,” Mott said. “It was a very humble walk off the racetrack.”

In the 21 years since Richard Mandella sent forth Dare and Go to knock Cigar off his lofty pedestal and rock Mott’s world, the two trainers have done okay. Both entered the Hall of Fame, both have trained multiple champions, and both have flexed their muscles at the Breeders’ Cup.

Now, Mott is finally back at Del Mar, this time with the imposing 3-year-old filly Elate, who brings her exuberant wins in the Alabama and Beldame to a Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Friday that threatens to steal the show from the other dozen Cup races being offered over two enthralling days.

And who is there to greet Mott and his filly? Yep, it’s that guy Mandella, with Santa Anita Oaks winner Paradise Woods ready to run the race of her young life.

Mott and Mandella have won seven of the 33 previous runnings of the Distaff, including four of the last six. Mott’s 10 wins in Breeders’ Cup races have come at five different sites around the country, while Mandella’s nine Breeders’ Cup victories all have come in California. Del Mar, as noted, is in California.

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Even so, the Distaff is hardly a two-horse race, what with Abel Tasman, Stellar Wind, and Forever Unbridled in the mix. Still, it is the showdown between Elate and Paradise Woods that tickles the imagination, along with the reunion of the two trainers who made history at Del Mar.

Elate was bred and is owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. Paradise Woods races for Del Mar director Martin Wygod and Steven Sarkowsky, the son of her breeder, the late Herman Sarkowsky.

Both fillies have records that make the pulse twitch. At one point, the 1,200-pound Elate lost four straight as the heavy favorite and never even made it around in the Ashland. Paradise Woods, all innocence and light, has been the little girl with the curl: When she is good, she is very good. When she is bad, forget it.

“She was a beautiful filly when she came to us, clearly very talented,” Mandella said. “There was nothing we could do but get excited.”

The excitement peaked in the Santa Anita Oaks, which Paradise Woods won by nearly a dozen lengths, and carried on to Kentucky, where she was favored in the Kentucky Oaks. Then, on a sloppy Churchill Downs track, the filly went too fast too soon and stopped badly to finish far behind Abel Tasman.

“If I had to do it again, I’d do it again,” Mandella said. “But it was a lot to ask of a filly with two maiden races and the Santa Anita Oaks in her third race. It all added up and got to her. There were excuses in the race, but not to run as bad as she did.”

Three and a half months later, Paradise Woods was back in action at Del Mar in the Torrey Pines, at 30 cents on the dollar.

“About a minute before they got to the starting gate, it hit me – I forgot to stand her in the gate,” Mandella said. “I might have done it once, but that wasn’t enough for a filly who’d had a bad experience in Kentucky.

“The problem was, she has a tendency to tie up, like nervous fillies do. So, I train her a lot early in the morning, when there is no starting gate available, and I never put 2 and 2 together. I was never real good at math in school, and it caught up with me in the Torrey Pines. No sooner did I have that thought, she got into the gate and tried to lay down.”

The race was a mess, and Paradise Woods beat one horse. Mandella apologized to his filly, let her get over the experience, and started taking her to the gate more often. He was rewarded with a fast win at Santa Anita in the 1 1/16-mile Zenyatta against three outfooted foes.

Meanwhile, Elate had turned the corner to win the Alabama by 5 1/2 and the Beldame by 8 1/4.

“Sometimes it all comes together at the same time,” Mott said. “Physically, she was a big, strong filly, but I think they’ve got to actually learn how to do the job. It wasn’t that she lacked talent, she just didn’t know how to use it until a little later.”

In both appearance and performance, Elate and Paradise Woods seem to have arrived at the Distaff in full 3-year-old bloom, just as Royal Delta did for Mott in 2011 and Beholder did for Mandella in 2013. Royal Delta ended her career with two Eclipse Awards and $4.8 million in earnings. Beholder won four championships and $6.1 million.

“At least with Beholder I got the Torrey Pines right,” Mandella said. “They’re both very good fillies, but apples and oranges otherwise. It will be a long time before I put another one in Beholder’s category.”

Likewise, Elate has a long way to go before Mott ranks her anywhere near Royal Delta.

“Three Breeders’ Cups, winning twice, two trips to Dubai,” Mott said of Royal Delta, who died after foaling this year. “What a tough, tough mare she was. It was an honor to have her as long as we did.”

Although the prospects are tantalizing, it is unreasonable to expect the Distaff to provide the same mountaintop excitement generated by the 1996 Pacific Classic. It should come as no surprise that Mandella has cued up the videotape more than a few times.

“I had two horses to run against Cigar – Siphon and Dare and Go – and I was looking forward to finishing second and third,” Mandella said. “As it turned out, Dare and Go ran the race of his life, and Cigar might have run a lesser race for him.”

Cigar pressed Siphon through a frantic pace, with Dare and Go far back. The grandstand rocked to the sight of the champion taking the lead turning for home.

“It was about there I saw Dare and Go drop down and hit another gear,” Mandella said.

So did Mott.

“I always said about Cigar that he could stay close enough to the speed horses that they couldn’t get away from him and the closers could never make up any ground on him,” Mott said. “Cigar ran a very good race, but it’s pace makes the race. A mile in 1:33 going a mile and a quarter is pretty fast. On that particular day, the pace got to us, and Dare and Go went by him.”

And the crowd went silent.

“It was a strange silence,” Mandella recalled. “Everything going crazy, and then you could hear a pin drop. I kind of felt like a bank robber leaving there that day. The lady in front of me was crying like a baby.”

As for Mott, he went to his horse in a daze.

“My head was in a bit of a vacuum,” he said. “Apparently, there was quite a hush over the crowd. I don’t think they knew how to react. I doubt, though, that Richard felt very bad about it. Sometimes you just have to be the spoiler.”

As upsets go, the ’96 Pacific Classic ranks with the greatest of all time. The Breeders’ Cup Distaff has had more than its share of shocks as well, including One Dreamer (47-1), Spain (55-1), Adoration (40-1), and Pleasant Home (30-1). Dare and Go paid $81.20 on a $2 bet.

“I was a big fan of Cigar and what Billy had done with him,” Mandella said. “But believe me, we’re all in this game to win.”