03/23/2004 1:00AM

Mandella chasing his own Moby Dick

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Since the inaugural Dubai World Cup in 1996, trainer Richard Mandella's horses have consistently run well, but have yet to win.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - This year, trainer Richard Mandella may go from a supporting role to the star of the post-race ceremony for Saturday's Dubai World Cup.

Through the years, Mandella's record in the rich race is remarkable, considering he has yet to win it. From 1996 to 2000, Mandella had six runners, no wins, three seconds, a third, two fourth-place finishes, and a staggering $3.5 million in earnings.

Some of the close calls have provided racing with highly memorable moments, but left Mandella wondering what it will take to win the World Cup.

"I guess you could look at it as frustrating not to have won, but I also look at it that every horse I've brought has run good," Mandella said. "That makes the trip nice. I'd like to have a winner. I've made three million dollars with seconds and thirds. It ain't like losing."

Saturday, Mandella may get his first winner when Pleasantly Perfect starts as a top contender in the $6 million race.

Pleasantly Perfect represents Mandella's best chance yet to collect the $3.6 million first prize. Owned by Gerald Ford of Dallas, Pleasantly Perfect has won three consecutive stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Classic last October at Santa Anita. He is ideally suited to the 1 1/4 miles, has handled the ship from California, and has overcome a bout with a temperature earlier this month.

But then Mandella has had horses arrive here in peak form in the past, notably Soul of the Matter in 1996, Siphon in 1997, and Malek in 1999. All three finished second. Soul of the Matter and Siphon were simply beaten, while Malek was brutally unlucky.

None of the runnings of the Dubai World Cup has been as memorable as the 1996 inaugural race between Cigar and Soul of the Matter. Cigar was the heavy favorite on the strength of a 13-race winning streak; Soul of the Matter the potential spoiler from California.

Cigar took the lead in early stretch but Soul of the Matter, rallying from last, drew alongside with a quarter-mile remaining. More than 5,000 miles from the United States, the top two American horses were battling a finish in the Arabian desert.

Mandella's recollection of the race is vivid.

"There might not ever been as much excitement as there was then," Mandella recalled earlier this week. "[Soul of the Matter] ran through the field and got his neck past Cigar at the eighth pole, and Cigar was so great that he dug back in and nailed him.

"It was a beauty. Everyone was screaming and yelling, and when Soul of the Matter came out of there and headed him, it got silent. And when Cigar came back on they started screaming and got excited. It was amazing how tuned in they were."

The margin was a half-length at the finish.

A year later, Mandella looked to have a winner with the powerful duo of Siphon and Sandpit, who had finished one-two in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap 26 days earlier. Instead, they were beaten by Singspiel, the winner of the Japan Cup in 1996, who was making his first start on dirt.

In 1999, Malek was widely considered the best American hope, only to be ganged up on by the home team, the Maktoum family's Godolphin Racing. With a furlong remaining and every chance to win, Malek was caught behind leader Almutawakel and alongside outsider Central Park. When Malek found room under jockey Alex Solis, he could not catch Almutawakel.

"He got in a little shift, the old Godolphin shift, but he ran great," Mandella said.

Mandella has not been back since Puerto Madero finished a well-beaten fourth in 2000.

"We made the first five," Mandella said. "It would be nice to win, period."

In the last few years, Mandella's stable has lacked a runner of the quality needed to try the Dubai World Cup. Pleasantly Perfect, for one, was fighting a minor injury at this time last year. This year, Pleasantly Perfect is in outstanding form, giving Mandella an excellent chance.

It takes about 20 hours to travel from Dubai to Mandella's base in Southern California. The trip home will give Mandella ample time to reflect on defeat, or plenty of time to celebrate a win.

Close but no cigar

Trainer Richard Mandella has tried to win the world's richest race, the Dubai World Cup, five times without a winner.

YEARHORSEFINISHEARNINGSWINNER
2000Puerto Madero4th$300,000Dubai Millennium
1999Malek2nd1,000,000Almutawakel
1998Malek4th200,000Silver Charm
1997Siphon2nd800,000Singspiel
  Sandpit3rd400,000Singspiel
1996Soul of the Matter2nd800,000Cigar