03/16/2006 1:00AM

Mandella fine-tuning Refinery

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ARCADIA, Calif. - If the end of this particular racing epoch is reached without Richard Mandella winning the Kentucky Derby, something will have gone terribly wrong.

The sport already has been forced to deal with similar inequities. There probably were perfectly sound reasons why trainers such as Frank Whiteley, Sylvester Veitch, Hirsch Jacobs, and both Preston and Elliott Burch concluded their Hall of Fame careers without a Derby win, although none come to mind. Believe it or not, the same fate threatens to befall Allen Jerkens, Ron McAnally, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, and Bobby Frankel unless those guys get on the stick.

But Mandella? Sheesh, this makes no sense at all, especially now that he is training for patrons like Wayne Hughes and Gerald Ford, who spend serious money on yearlings, 2-year-olds, broodmares, and stallion shares that should have Kentucky Derby written all over them.

The facile answer reads that Mandella is a whiz with older runners, content to win Santa Anita Handicaps and Dubai World Cups in lieu of all that Triple Crown bother. They got him to the Hall of Fame, so why rock the boat? And who wants to win the Derby then deal with David Letterman, anyway?

Well, it's a bum rap and full of baloney. The horsemanship and career management practiced by Mandella has universal appeal, at least among his horses. If Mandella, now 55, is guilty of anything over his career of 35 years, it has been an overpowering empathy with the animal itself, characterized by an unwillingness to spend all of a young Thorough-bred's physical capital on a one-shot deal.

Anyone who watched the serialized presentation of the documentary "On the Muscle," which concluded this week on HRTV, will have some idea of the way Mandella does business. If you missed it, get it. There is no better primer on the subtle art of training, as well as the operation of a high-stakes stable. There are even a few laughs.

In the meantime, back in the real world, Mandella will be testing the early Derby waters on Saturday in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes with Refinery, a son of 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop, purchased by Hughes as a 2-year-old for $425,000.

Refinery will be a middling price in a field topped by Bob and John, winner of the Sham Stakes, as well as his Bob Baffert-trained stablemates Point Determined and Sky Diving (also owned by Hughes), along with A.P. Warrior, who now answers to the horse whispering of Giacomo's trainer, John Shirreffs.

When it comes to young talent, Mandella is a quick study, but slow to judge, and his horses always get the benefit of the doubt. Refinery arrives at the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, his stakes debut, with two wins from five starts, including a smart 2 1/2-length score in his last race at a mile.

"I don't know if he's a Derby horse, but it's time to find out, I guess," Mandella said, brimming with something a bit less than confidence. "We always thought he could run, but he'd kind of let us down, even though he'd never run bad."

Refinery has undergone two key equipment changes recently, both intended to reveal the racehorse inside his handsome bay physique. In January, not long after an indifferent fourth-place finish to Wanna Runner, he underwent surgery to remove an undescended testicle. (The procedure is fairly routine, and one can only imagine the relief.) Then, after a comeback third, Mandella decided to add blinkers. Refinery responded with that allowance score on Feb. 25.

"He's been a goofing-around kind of colt," Mandella noted. "He just wouldn't pay attention, and racing didn't make him any more serious. If you set him down, he'll work good. If you work him easy, he'll look around like a green colt.

"I think the blinkers might have brought him to a new level," Mandella added. "He won nice, so now we'll try the big boys."

Time will be running out real soon for colts like Refinery. The heavy burden of winning graded stakes money to make a 20-horse Derby field limit weighs heavily against a colt that is still a work in progress in mid-March. He needs to run big on Saturday.

As far as the acts Refinery must follow, Mandella has run six colts in the Kentucky Derby, beginning in 1984 with the Elmendorf Farm last-minute longshot Bedouin and most recently in 2004 with Action This Day (for Hughes) and Minister Eric (for Ford). His best finish was a fifth-place finish in 1994 with Burt Bacharach's Soul of the Matter, the colt that later gave Cigar the race of his life in Dubai.

With a personal Derby history spanning two decades, Mandella was asked if he could predict what kind of colt it took to make a lasting impression on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

"From my experience you sure can't," Mandella cracked.

But seriously . . .

"Refinery's enough horse, no doubt about that," the trainer conceded. "We've just got to keep moving forward, that's all. And time is of the essence. I'm a grandfather now."