05/01/2013 12:20PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Oaks, Derby among few prizes that have eluded Mandella

Barbara D. Livingston
Richard Mandella will try to win his first Kentucky Oaks with 2-year-old champion filly Beholder on Friday.

If it is time to tidy up a bit of historical housekeeping and let Shug McGaughey finally win a Kentucky Derby with Orb on Saturday, then maybe for a warm-up on Friday the long-suffering Richard Mandella should silence his critics and take down the Kentucky Oaks with Beholder.

Okay, critic. No one who spends more than a few moments with Mandella’s record can be honestly disappointed that he never has won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, or the Kentucky Oaks, especially since he was otherwise occupied winning just about everything else worth the trouble, including an Breeders’ Cup Classic-Dubai World Cup double with Pleasantly Perfect.

Even so, it is Mandella himself who during the occasional dark night of the soul wakes up in a cold sweat fearing he has forgotten to do something important. Latch the gate? Turn off the iron? Wedding anniversary? Nope, the answer is win one of those dang 3-year-old races they run every year with most of the known world watching.

[2013 KENTUCKY OAKS: Get PPs, read live ontrack updates]

“You’d think I would have won one by now just by accident,” Mandella has said, self-deprecating to a fault.

It has only been in the last 30 years that the Kentucky Oaks has assumed a place in racing’s firmament as a demi-classic. For the 100 or so years prior to that it was a nice race to win but hardly necessary to establish a national reputation.

However, of the last 15 Eclipse Award champions of the division, eight won the Kentucky Oaks, a ninth, Banshee Breeze, finished second, and a 10th, Wait a While, was moved to third on a DQ.

If Mandella pulls off the Oaks with Beholder, owned by the Spendthrift Farm of B. Wayne Hughes and the reigning champion of her generation, he will do it in the face of what has been universally proclaimed to be the toughest, deepest version of the nine-furlong contest since just about forever. Beholder’s showdown with Dreaming of Julia, Unlimited Budget, Close Hatches, and Midnight Lucky has imaginations spinning, while the supporting cast would populate an A-list in just about any other race. The point is, Mandella could have picked an easier year to go hunting a Holy Grail with one of the best fillies he has ever laid his hands on.

“Just my luck,” Mandella said this week from Louisville. “We’ve done pretty good in some of the other races they run here over the weekend, but when it came to 3-year-olds I didn’t think nature would be against us with the fillies like it’s been with colts.”

In absolute fairness, Mandella never has come to a Derby or an Oaks with both barrels loaded. His best Derby chances were with the Burt Bacharach homebreds Soul of the Matter (fifth in 1994) and Afternoon Deelites (eighth in 1995). The last time he tried the Oaks was in 2002 with the longshot Ile de France, who finished sixth.

Had things worked out differently, Mandella might have been in the thick of the Kentucky Oaks long before Friday. Phone Chatter, his champion 2-year-old filly of 1993, was injured after beating Sardula in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and retired. Halfbridled, who was the undefeated champion 2-year-old filly of 2003 after beating Ashado in the BC Juvenile Fillies, lost her only two starts at age 3 before the Oaks was even run.

The fact that both Sardula and Ashado went on to win the Kentucky Oaks only serves to remind Mandella he probably had the right horse. But the expanse of time between a champion’s final race at 2 and the beginning of a classic journey at 3 can be fraught with all sorts of pitfalls. When Beholder defeated Executiveprivilege in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita early last November, Mandella knew she was still a work in progress.

“Before that she was pretty fiery,” Mandella said. “I wasn’t sure she was ready to accept the idea of going two turns. Then after I announced that I was concerned, she straightened right up.”

It should be so easy. Beholder, a daughter of Henny Hughes, did not go seamlessly into her 3-year-old season. She finished second without much fuss in her first start, the seven-furlong Santa Ynez at Santa Anita, and emerged from the race with a slight ulcer in her throat. Once that healed she took the one-mile Las Virgenes and the 1 1/16-mile Santa Anita Oaks by daylight.

“Through the winter she didn’t look her prettiest,” Mandella said. “She’d gone through a little bit of a growing stage. Some horses roll right through that and never really lose shape, or go through some gawkiness. Now I’d say she’s balancing back out, and she’s looking very pretty again. I just love her.”

Mandella, 62, was born in Altadena, Calif., a modest community nestled in the foothills above Pasadena. His father, Gene Mandella, was a blacksmith, his mother a homemaker. From Day One he would spend his early mornings and late afternoons around horses. Soon it was clear that there wasn’t anything Mandella ever was going to be other than a Thoroughbred trainer. He was licensed at 23.

When Mandella entered the Hall of Fame in 2001 he had won two Breeders’ Cup events, trained two champions (including 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan), won two Hollywood Gold Cups, two Pacific Classics, and two Santa Anita Handicaps, along with the Metropolitan Mile, the Beverly D., the Woodford Reserve, the Donn Handicap, the Haskell Invitational, the Pimlico Special, and the Super Derby. He had also won just about every stakes race out West that begins with “San,” “Santa,” “Hollywood” or “Del Mar.”

Since entering the Hall of Fame, where he was introduced by his lifelong hero Allen Jerkens, Mandella has won five more Breeders’ Cup races (including four on one day in 2003), the Dubai World Cup, the Arlington Million, two Del Mar Futurities, another Santa Anita Handicap, another Pacific Classic, and trained another champion.

Mandella is not content simply to make history. He also is a student of the game’s lore and has the library to prove it. Fittingly, his runners have played significant roles in milestone events.

When Laffit Pincay won an unprecedented seven races at Santa Anita on March 15, 1987, Mandella provided number seven with Bedouin.

When Pincay broke Bill Shoemaker’s all-time record for wins with number 8,834 at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10, 1999, it was aboard Irish Nip, a horse trained by Mandella.

And when Russell Baze ascended to his dizzying win number 11,000 in August 2010 at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, he did it with the help of the maiden race winner Separate Forest, trained by Mandella.

Despite being on the sidelines for Saturday’s Derby, Mandella’s fingerprints are all over the race. He trained Dixie Union, the sire of Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze, who was bred and sold for $380,000 by Gerald Ford’s Diamond A Farm, a major Mandella client. He also trained Into Mischief, owned by Hughes, winner of the 2007 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park and sire of both Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents and Gotham Stakes winner Vyjack. Mandella was asked what the former trainer of the sire of a Derby winner traditionally gets in the way of a fitting prize.

“All you can,” he replied.

Mandella takes pride in his profession and worries hard about the game. Then he will turn around and poke fun at his own serious side and crack wise like he’s still auditioning for that shot on Johnny Carson that somehow never came.

When, in September 2007 George W. Bush surprised a press conference with the news that “Mandela’s dead!” (Nelson wasn’t, oops), the other Mandella was quick to jump to the President’s defense.

“I don’t blame him for thinking I was dead,” Mandella said the next morning. “You’d think it, the way I’ve been running….I’ve heard some handicappers say the same thing.”

Mandella blames his sardonic side on the years spent with the New York-based trainer Lefty Nickerson, his mentor and friend. When he was learning the ropes as Nickerson’s 22-year-old assistant, Mandella nearly won the 1973 San Juan Capistrano with Elmendorf’s horse Big Spruce, who came up just shy of catching the front-running Queen’s Hustler.

“One more jump and we had that son of a bitch,” the youngster insisted to his boss.

Nickerson let the kid’s comment stew in its own juice for a minute. “Well now, Richard,” Nickerson finally said, “We went a mile and three-quarters. Exactly how many jumps do you think we need?”

If it bothers Mandella that he has never won a Kentucky Derby or Oaks, he does a good job of letting it show just enough to prove he’s human. In the spring of 2006, when the trainer was trying to wish an untested 3-year-old into becoming a Derby horse, he was forthright in admitting, “Time is of the essence. I’m a grandfather now.”

Mandella insists he would not trade places with any other trainer in this stellar version of the Oaks. Anyway, he has come this far with Beholder, so why not give it a try? Time is still of the essence, but at least in Mandella’s case, with or without a Kentucky Oaks or a Kentucky Derby it has been time well spent.