09/24/2007 12:00AM

Mandella aims to come alive

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - I heard him say it, and because he is the president I believe him.

"Mandella's dead!"

Those were the very words of George W. Bush at a press conference last week. But then everyone jumped on his case, because Mandella really isn't dead, which of course the president knows. He was simply telling it like it is, laying out another painful truth.

It was kind of surprising, though, that he would care about a Thoroughbred trainer, even a Hall of Fame trainer like Richard Mandella. What the president probably meant was that Mandella has had such a rocky 2007 season, with purse totals that don't even put him in the top 25 nationally, that for all intents and purposes he might as well be . . .

What? Not that Mandella? He was talking about the other one, that guy Nelson Mandela? But he's not dead either. The last time anyone checked he was alive, though frail, at the age of 89, although if Nelson Mandela has had a bad season, who cares? He still has both a Nobel Peace Prize and the everlasting love and admiration of his fellow South Africans.

"I don't blame him for thinking I was dead," Richard Mandella said, cutting the president some slack, if he needed it. "You'd think it, the way I've been running. Things have been pretty slow. I've heard some handicappers say the same thing."

With just 21 wins from 134 starts this year and purse earnings of $1.7omillion, Mandella will have a chance to stage a late-season rally when the Oak Tree Racing Association opens its 39th meeting on Wednesday at Santa Anita.

The trainer will be in action on opening day with a horse on the grass, then he will run for the first time on Santa Anita's new version of Cushion Track on the second day of the meet. On Sunday, Mandella will be starting Dixie Chatter on Cushion Track in the Norfolk Stakes, a race he won in 1999 with Dixie Chatter's sire, Dixie Union.

"The other horse chipped an ankle in the Del Mar Futurity," Mandella said, referring to Kanan Dume, who finished a brave sixth at Del Mar, while Dixie Chatter was right there in fifth after a wide trip. Kanan Dume, making only his second start, was buried down on the inside for most of the trip.

"He's a big, tough, strong horse," Mandella said of his wounded warrior. "He was trying to run over horses down the backside, and probably started his trouble there. In his first breeze back, it chipped off."

Such news should not mean the end of a career, especially in Mandella's world. If Kanan Dume needs inspiration, he need look no further than a few stalls down the shed row, where The Tin Man is still doing business at the age of 9.

As the defending champion of Oak Tree's Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship on Oct. 6, The Tin Man will be making his first start since a second-place finish to Jambalaya in the Arlington Million on Aug. 11.

"He breezed a mile on the grass today," Mandella said Monday. "I didn't have anything to work with him, though, and he's getting pretty wise in his old age. So it turned out to be just a good gallop."

Whatever works. The Tin Man was noble in defeat at Arlington, where the ground came up softer than he really preferred. He was beaten only three-quarters of a length, with Victor Espinoza aboard.

"Victor told me that he didn't really handle it," Mandella said. "I thought he was just being gentlemanly about getting beat. But watching the rerun, as long as Victor held his head together he was going beautiful. Turning for home, though, when he pushed him and opened him up, his head started going up and down like a bobber on a fish pond. I think he held onto second out of sheer heart."

Mandella has won the Hirsch, formerly the Oak Tree Invitational, four times, with Kotashaan, Sandpit, and The Tin Man in both 2002 and 2006. The record helps put Mandella fourth on the all-time list of stakes-winning trainers at the Oak Tree meet, behind fellow Hall of Famers Charlie Whittingham, Bobby Frankel, and Ron McAnally.

This is appropriate, since Mandella now answers to the role of Oak Tree director as well, filling the seat occupied by Trudy McCaffery, who died in February.

"I'm proud to be involved," Mandella said. "The biggest difference between Oak Tree and other racetrack operators is that you don't owe anybody any bottom-line results to impress them - other than the industry."

As a nonprofit organization, founded in 1969 by Clement Hirsch, Lou Rowan, and a group of noted California horsemen, Oak Tree has donated more than $20 million to racing, with the equine veterinary school at the University of California-Davis its main beneficiary.

"I don't know if it's for me to say, but I would think that it would be the best thing for racing if tracks were run that way," Mandella said. "When we make money, whether it's a lot or a little, we take that money and figure out how to help the game. And the game, I think, is in desperate need of that kind of help."