10/03/2002 11:00PM

Mandella dressed for success


ARCADIA, Calif. - Upon entering the main stable gate at Santa Anita and making a hard left, the neighborhood immediately becomes upscale.

First there are the Bob Baffert barns, ground zero for his ever-expanding sphere of influence. The exterior walls are adorned with hand-painted signs extolling Baffert's three Kentucky Derby winners, his four Preakness winners, his Belmont winner, his two winners of the Dubai World Cup and his two (only two?) winners in the Breeders' Cup.

A bit farther down, in the barns once occupied by Charlie Whittingham, reside the horses of Richard Mandella. If he wanted to, Mandella could display his Hall of Fame plaque and light the place up with neon signs that advertise his training of 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan - his dead-heat with Beautiful Melody and Reluctant Guest in the 1990 Beverly Hills Handicap, and his six straight victories in back-to-back runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, and Santa Anita Handicap during a stretch from mid-1996 to early 1998.

Instead, Mandella has a row of tall corn, a patch of lush grass, and the walls of his 32 stalls freshly painted a bright and cheery white. He also has a bobble-head Bob Baffert doll sitting in his stable office window sill.

"I like to smack it around every once in awhile," Mandella admitted.

Consider it therapy. Mandella has celebrated his first full year as a member of the Hall of Fame with a subpar campaign, at least by his lofty standards. He entered the weekend with purse earnings of $3 million from barely 200 starters (Baffert, by comparison, has $8.8 million from about 500).

Most trainers would kill for such a level of failure, but for Mandella the season has been rife with bad breaks and might-have-beens.

Kudos was injured before he had a chance to repeat his impressive performance in the Oaklawn Handicap. Redattore, winner of the San Antonio, was set for a profitable summer and fall, then got sick on a trip north for the Longacres Mile. Palmarola, a potential star among fillies and mares, needed surgery last week for a displaced colon.

If things are getting to Mandella, it has yet to show. He was turned out in a sharp set of casual duds before the races one day this week, striding out like a man with a favorite in every heat. His shoes gleamed in the sunlight.

"If you're winning races, you can go without shaving, wear any old thing you want," Mandella said. "But if you're not winning races, you at least better look good."

The weekend figured to hold the key to the rest of the Mandella season, and how well he will need to dress. Either he would be moving on to play with the rest of the world in the Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park on Oct. 26, or he would be staying home, watering the grass.

On Saturday, Mandella was scheduled run Listen Indy in the Norfolk and Noches de Rosa in the Yellow Ribbon. On Sunday, he will be represented in all three stakes on the Breeders' Cup preview program at Santa Anita.

Espy, flying the colors of Claiborne Farm, runs in the $200,000 Oak Leaf for 2-year-old fillies. Pleasantly Perfect, a respectable fourth to Came Home in the Pacific Classic, will be tested by Momentum in the $500,000 Goodwood Handicap. Mandella's hopes for the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship rest with The Tin Man, who was beaten a neck last time out in the Del Mar Handicap.

"It's kind of like finals week," Mandella said. "That worries me. I was never any good at tests."

The Tin Man, a 4-year-old son of Affirmed, represents one of Mandella's most successful female families. Bred and owned by Ralph and Aury Todd, The Tin Man descends from their taproot mare Dancing Liz, a daughter of Northern Dancer who won a division of the Autumn Days Handicap during the 1976 Oak Tree meet.

Dave Bernstein trained Dancing Liz, but Mandella ended up with many of her offspring. The best one was Oraibi, winner of the 1988 Malibu Stakes. Oraibi's sister Lizzie Rolfe "was just a dinky little thing," Mandella recalled. She never won a race, but as a broodmare she produced Mama Simba, a five-time stakes winner at Fairplex Park. In 1998, Lizzie Rolfe foaled The Tin Man.

In 10 races for Mandella, The Tin Man has run poorly only once. Then again, he's lucky to be running at all.

"He bowed a tendon as a 2-year-old," Mandella said. "It was significant, and we went ahead and did the tendon-splitting procedure. I suppose the younger they are the better chance they might have. But still, you can never predict what will happen with a tendon."

Mandella has worked his share of miracles with tendon trouble in the past. Afternoon Deelites and Memo, among others, returned after having soft tissue damage to win major stakes for him. The Tin Man joined that list last summer when he won the American Handicap at Hollywood Park.

The Tin Man's opposition in the Hirsch includes Sarafan, Blue Stellar, and Skipping, with the winner earning consideration for a berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Whether or not he has the ability to run with the best in the world remains to be seen. As far as Mandella is concerned, though, The Tin Man already proved he has the heart.