06/25/2002 11:00PM

It's his Beverly Hills to cop


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It would be hard to guess Richard Mandella's favorite holiday. The candidates would be Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, or whenever they run the Beverly Hills Handicap.

"Yes, the race has been very, very good to me," Mandella said.

For a change, he wasn't kidding.

Mandella has posed for winners' circle photographs following the Beverly Hills in the company of four outstanding grass mares. They are Virginie (who defeated Tranquility Lake and Keeper Hill), Corrazona (who handled champions Hollywood Wildcat and Flawlessly), Beautiful Melody, and Reluctant Guest.

In two of those pictures Mandella is wearing the same clothes and pretty much the same self-satisfied smile. That is because Beautiful Melody, owned by John and Betty Mabee, and Reluctant Guest, who raced for Robert Folsom, finished in a flat-footed tie. Their dead-heat of June 30, 1990, assured Mandella a place in the racetrack trivia hall of fame long before he earned his plaque at the Racing Museum in Saratoga Springs.

Mandella was 39 at the time and already training one of the West's elite stables. Little did he know the best was yet to come, with such runners as Gentlemen, Sandpit, Afternoon Deelites, Siphon, and Soul of the Matter on the horizon. Still, to monopolize a dead-heat in a Grade 1 race was quite an achievement.

"They finished one-two in the race before that, when Reluctant Guest ran down Beautiful Melody," Mandella recalled. "But Beautiful Melody improved a lot from there to the next race.

"I actually thought Reluctant Guest had beaten the other mare a nose, because she was coming from behind and flying," Mandella said of the Beverly Hills. "But it was too close to be sure. No more than a nod.

"The Mabees were watching the race at Del Mar, and Mr. Folsom was at Hollywood," the trainer added. "I told him to wait up there at the top of the steps until the photo came back. But I told him I was going on down, because it really didn't matter to me."

Deadpan humor aside, the domination of a high-class race must be an intoxicating rush. Stir in a dead-heat, and you have the best of all possible worlds. Only a few privileged trainers with deep quality stables ever get to make such a big-chested swagger through the grandstand aisles after landing a one-two punch at that level.

The photo-finish between Cougar and Kennedy Road at the end of the 1973 Santa Anita Handicap didn't really matter to trainer Charlie Whittingham. He had it covered. Gamely might have been guilty of interference while beating Princessnesian a nose in the 1968 Santa Margarita. Either way was fine with Jim Maloney, though, as long as they both woke up sound at his barn the next day. And in 1994, D. Wayne Lukas watched in admiration as Flanders and Serena's Song battled to the end of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Flanders beat her roommate by a head, but went wrong and never raced again.

Winning the Beverly Hills more than once is the kind of thing that gets people noticed. Only the very best mares decorate its history, beginning with the flamboyant Pink Pigeon back in 1968. Champions Track Robbery, Royal Heroine, Estrapade, and Flawlessly have been among the winners. Champions Typecast, Possibly Perfect, Hollywood Wildcat, and Wandesta were not quite good enough on the day.

Whittingham won the Beverly Hills eight times. Ron McAnally has won three, while Chris McCarron - now gone fishing - racked up six.

Laffit Pincay, still adding to his numbers, won the Beverly Hills for the first of four times in 1971 with Manta and most recently in 1999 aboard Virginie, courtesy of Mandella.

Mandella and Pincay will team again on Saturday with the Argentine mare Crazy Ensign. She is a light gray with a sharp closing kick that was good enough to win an allowance race on the Hollywood grass last year and the Miss America Handicap at Bay Meadows this spring. Her earlier lines display solid form in the best company back home.

Mandella landed Crazy Ensign from out of the blue from her owner, Dr. Jose de All. Apparently, his reputation in South America is still very strong.

"That's good," Mandella cracked, "because it's kind of slacking here in America."

Okay, so the first half 2002 season has not gone exactly according to Mandella' s plan. An upset in the Beverly Hills would go a long way toward tidying up the books. Crazy Ensign's opposition will include defending Beverly Hills champ Astra, which should be enough to send sane horsemen ducking for cover.

"When she's right," Mandella praised, "she's something else."

Astra has won 10 of 14 starts, including the Santa Barbara and the Gamely this year. In their only encounter, Astra defeated Crazy Ensign by 2 1/2 lengths in the Gamely one month ago.

"I thought she'd run a little better than she actually did," Mandella said of his mare. "But it wasn't a bad race. I'm hoping I've picked up her game a little bit. She'll have to if she's going to beat Astra."