02/28/2002 1:00AM

Mandella enjoying role of underdog


ARCADIA, Calif. - The pressure is off in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.

He has two starters - Cagney and Kudos - but neither is well known nationally, neither will be favored, and there are questions surrounding their ability on dirt.

They are part of a wide-open Big Cap that could easily produce a longshot winner and give Mandella his third victory in the race.

The lack of pressure is evident in Mandella's mood as he prepares the duo.

"This is just fun," he said.

Obviously, Mandella wants to do well on Saturday. Mandella's Big Cap success in the 1990's played a big role in his election to the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Beginning with Siphon's win in the 1996 Hollywood Gold Cup, Mandella won six straight $1 million races for older horses at the three Southern California tracks. Later that year, he won the Pacific Classic with Dare and Go at Del Mar, ending Cigar's winning streak at 16. In 1997, Mandella won the Big Cap with Siphon, and the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic with Gentlemen. The final victory in the streak came when Malek upset stablemate Gentlemen in the 1998 Big Cap.

Mandella, 51, frequently recalls the streak. "I do that often, when I'm trying to pay the bills," he said. "It was a great stable, a great group."

One of the highlights in that span came in 1997 when Mandella finished one-two-three in the Big Cap with Siphon, Sandpit, and Gentlemen, a first in the 64-year history of the race. All three horses came from South America, as did Malek.

The success left some people in Southern California with the impression that all South American imports are destined for American greatness.

"I wouldn't count on it," Mandella said. "Hopefully there will be some more."

Cagney and Kudos have had distinctively different careers.

Cagney, owned by Congalo Bordes Torrealba's Stud TNT, was bred in Brazil and arrived in the U.S. in early 2001. Kudos was bred by his owners, Jerry and Ann Moss of Los Angeles, and has been with Mandella since the start of his career in late 1999.

Cagney is a question mark on dirt. A 5-year-old, he finished sixth on dirt in a listed stakes in Brazil in February 2000, his career debut. He subsequently won a Group 1 over a mile on turf in Brazil before being transferred to Mandella.

In nine starts, all on turf, under Mandella's care, Cagney has two wins - the 2001 Escondido Handicap at Del Mar and the Grade 3 Carleton Burke Handicap at Oak Tree last October.

Mandella is hoping Cagney will take to dirt as well as Sandpit, another Brazilian import, who raced exclusively on turf until late in his career.

"Why not try him?" Mandella said of Cagney. "With Sandpit, I waited until he was 8 and found out he could run on dirt. Maybe I should have tried him at 6. I don't want to wait forever. If he can't do it, so what. We'll find another turf race somewhere."

Kudos will be the shorter price of the pair, as he attempts to give the Mosses their second victory in the Big Cap. They won in 1990 with Ruhlmann, who was trained by Charlie Whittingham.

A 5-year-old, Kudos lost his first seven starts before he was gelded. Since then, he has won five of 10 starts, including the restricted San Marino Handicap over 1 1/4 miles on dirt on Feb. 17.

"He's a big, beautiful horse but he didn't put it all together," Jerry Moss said. "Unfortunately, it happened after he was gelded."

The San Marino victory clinched his participation in Saturday's Big Cap, Mandella said.

"It would take a better race than that to win the Handicap," Mandella said. "I don't know that it would require a lot better. There's no reason he couldn't improve off that."

The San Marino win ended a five-race losing streak for Kudos that had lasted through the summer and fall.

"I think I tailed off myself, too," Mandella cracked. "He was fighting, lugging in. He forgot that when he got on that roll. We just backed off and brought him back up again. We have him right.

"Look at him," Mandella said, watching Kudos walk through the paddock earlier this week. "See how he shines. He's filled out. This was all part of the plan, of course."

Mandella smiled. He will be wearing an even bigger grin if Kudos or Cagney succeed on Saturday.