12/23/2004 1:00AM

Looking forward to a better 2005


ARCADIA Calif. - So this is Christmas, or thereabouts, and time to read those letters enclosed in holiday cards. This one did not make the mail, but it could have:

Dear friends and family, Well, 2004 was quite a year for the Mandella stable. Richard, that is, because never forget that young Gary is now in business for himself and doing well. In fact, you might have noticed his new horse Taste of Paradise won the Underwood Handicap at Hollywood Park recently, and there are big plans for a 2005 campaign that could include a race such as the prestigious San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita. You will also be glad to know that Gary has promised not to get any taller, and rumors of a return to the TVG broadcast booth are completely false, since he does not have the right kind of accent.

As far as Richard's 2004 stable was concerned, he would describe the year as terribly disappointing, only he might not say it quite so delicately. We all know that horse racing is a game of highs and lows. The highs are very high and lows can be very low, and sometimes the lows go on for what seems like eternity, while the highs last only a few glowing hours. This would account for the movement to publish a Prozac list for trainers, to go along with Bute and Lasix for the horses.

As we all know, Richard sailed into 2004 on the wings of his greatest season ever. In 2003 he won four Breeders' Cup races and developed two champions, and the family sent out a much more expensive Christmas card. Expectations were high for 2004. But, of course, so were Howard Dean's.

If the season had stopped on the night of March 27, that would have been enough. You can not imagine what it is like to win a race like the Dubai World Cup, like Richard did with Pleasantly Perfect. Yes, the money is good. But it is so much more. The race has played a major role in Richard's life since the very first time it was run, back in 1996, when he almost beat Cigar with Soul of the Matter. You truly feel as if you are performing on a world stage, even though the race takes place in a small Middle Eastern nation. And then there is the challenge of training a horse to produce his best effort in a very foreign setting, far from home. Richard was rightfully proud of Pleasantly Perfect's achievement. You need a very good horse to win the World Cup, and he had to be at his best to defeat Medaglia d'Oro that night.

Of the other 350 or so days this year, there were a few others that reminded us of 2003. Pleasantly Perfect was our hero again in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Noches de Rosa put her best foot forward to win the Gamely Handicap. Pleasantly Perfect also won the San Antonio Handicap, which gave Richard six San Antonios, dating back to 1984. In fact, the story of 2004 pretty much began and ended with Pleasantly Perfect. Not that Richard was keeping score, but Pleasantly Perfect earned $4.8 million during the year, while the rest of the stable earned $1.6 million.

At some point in the season, those nice folks with the documentary cameras stopped following Richard and recording his every move. That may have been a sign, but its importance paled in significance next to the serious injuries suffered by our dear friends Alex Solis and Dan Hendricks. Alex will be back riding soon, while Dan has been able to continue his training career from a wheelchair.

The stable was full of promising 3-year-olds at the beginning of 2004. Most of them are now about to be 4-year-olds, and still promising. Nothing seemed to go right. Action This Day, the 2-year-old champion, injured a muscle in his rump. Minister Eric, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, needed a throat operation. Siphonizer, winner of the Del Mar Futurity, also needed a throat operation, then had liver trouble. Spellbinder, who won like he might be something good, sored up and missed the summer. Then there was Halfbridled, the queen, the champ, and the real heartbreak of the year.

Except for Halfbridled, who had to be retired because of her injuries, they are all still at the track and enjoying their jobs. And for those who know Richard, those coming 4-year-olds are like money in the bank. They are grown up now, approaching their peak of maturity. The injuries and illnesses of youth are behind them, hopefully, with nothing but rich opportunities ahead.

For anyone involved in California racing, the New Year does not begin on Jan. 1. It begins on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, with the opening of Santa Anita Park and the running of the Malibu Stakes, a race that will include Minister Eric, Spellbinder, and their new stablemate Rock Hard Ten.

So we look to the future, and to all those who deal with these remarkable Thoroughbreds, dedicating their talents and care, we wish you nothing but success. Richard speaks for the entire Mandella family when he says to all:

"God bless Pleasantly Perfect."