02/06/2002 1:00AM

Mandella goes home again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Before last Monday, it had been at least a dozen years since Richard Mandella had shown his face in the Santa Ynez Valley, which makes no sense at all, since the valley is California's most famous breeding ground for quality Thoroughbreds, and no one ever really needs an excuse to drive up Highway 101 past Santa Barbara for a breath of fresh air.

But 12 years? Were there outstanding warrants with Mandella's name attached? Unpaid bar bills? Poker debts?

Long before Mandella began handling horses for clients from Texas, Kentucky, Argentina, Chila, Brazil, England, and France, he did his best work with products of the Santa Ynez Valley, specifically the runners bred and raised by Russell Drake at the River Edge Farm of Pam and Marty Wygod. There are still mares in the pastures of the valley that Mandella trained, who might even remember his voice if he gave them half a chance.

It was appropriate, therefore, that Mandella made his return to the picture-perfect region as the special guest of the Santa Ynez Valley Thoroughbred Association last Monday night, hailed as a favorite son who made it all the way to the Hall of Fame. He was also billed as the evening's guest speaker, but expectations of the 150 or so in attendance were not unreasonably high.

"He's a man of few words," said association president Marvin Malmuth during his introduction. "And those few words are intimidating."

Malmuth and his wife Sonya met Mandella in 1983 when they were neighbors in the horsey Santa Anita suburb of Bradbury. They felt obligated to give the (relatively) young trainer a shot.

"We sent Dick a 2-year-old filly," Malmuth said. "And we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally he called. 'I've entered her in a maiden-32 on Friday,' he said, 'and she ain't much.' "

Those were Mandella's more diplomatic days. The filly won by 12, Malmuth added, but that did nothing to change her trainer's mind.

"It's not that we're not friends," Malmuth continued, his tongue still tickling the inside of his cheek. "Although you'll notice he's not sitting at our table. He is, however, the rarest man I've met in my 30 years in the industry."

By now, Mandella should be getting used to such lavish praise, especially since he has trained Kotashaan, Phone Trick, Gentlemen, Siphon, Sandpit, Afternoon Deelites, and Dixie Union - and the end is not in sight. Unlike fellow Hall of Famers Bobby Frankel and Ron McAnally, Mandella is a homegrown California boy, and as such he has attained a certain status on the West Coast scene that lends weight to even his most casual observations.

When Mandella talks, people tend to listen . . . if they're smart.

For his part, Mandella was about ready to appear Monday night with a bag over his head. Through most of January, his horses spent their time chasing other horses, and he was beginning to fret. But then the Mandella stable unleashed three winners over the weekend - including Redattore in the San Antonio Handicap - and the trainer was able to appear in public as himself.

"I've got too many friends here to start telling lies," Mandella began. "They'd know the difference."

He was wearing the same glen-plaid blazer and black slacks that he wore last summer for his Hall of Fame induction. ("Nordstrom's," explained Mandella's wife, Randi, who does all his shopping. Thank goodness.) He did not speak from notes, like he did in Saratoga Springs. This time he spoke from experience, from a lifetime of wanting to do only one thing and doing it well. His message was unapologetic.

"We should be proud of the fact that we provide an escape from everyday life," Mandella said. "We've seen in the last few months how important that can be. Racing has to be proud that we provide that escape in a somewhat sane way.

"There will always be a certain number of people in our society who will always love horses," he added. "We need to stand by that and acknowledge it."

It was a pep talk, sure, but not the kind that annoys. There was a clarity to Mandella's comments. He put forth an answer for those who would question any endeavor that smacks of being indulgent or petty in these tense times. Yes, horse racing is a game, played by adults. Mandella's challenge was to play it properly and let the game serve a higher purpose.

Then he asked for questions, because how else was he going to fill out the 15 minutes if he didn't get help from the audience? He talked about his all-time favorite horse, Bad n' Big, who was his first major stakes winner.

He blushed at compliments from old friends like valley breeder Eloise Power, who recalled a 17-year-old Mandella galloping her horses at Three Rings Ranch during his high school lunch break.

"Of course he went back to class," Power said.

Of course he did.

Then, near the end, Mandella's chest puffed out noticeably when he confirmed that his son, Gary, was gradually forming his own stable and recently ran his first horse in his own name.

"He'll eventually have his own barn at Hollywood Park, and I'll have the barn at Santa Anita," Mandella explained. "I hope it will be full. But just in case, those of you who are here tonight who have trainers - I can beat their deals."