02/23/2010 12:00AM

Mandella looks for way back to Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Richard Mandella watched the 2009 Kentucky Derby in a condition somewhere between amazement and shock.

Mine That Bird, who had been trained by Mandella for one race the preceding winter before being sold, was storming home in a 50-1 upset for trainer Chip Woolley.

"He was great that day," Mandella said. "How do you expect a horse to run like that?"

This year, the Hall of Fame trainer wants to take his own chance at the Kentucky Derby, perhaps with Setsuko, who starts in Saturday's $150,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

Setsuko is making his stakes debut in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes over 1 1/8 miles, his sixth career start. He needed five races to beat maidens, but did so by three lengths over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park in December. In his only start at this meeting, Setsuko was a game second in an optional claimer over 1 1/8 miles on turf Jan. 27.

The last two races confirmed Setsuko's desire to run longer distance. Saturday's appearance in a wide-open Sham Stakes will determine whether he has the quality to run in Kentucky Derby preps.

Mandella, always wise-cracking when given the chance, is eager to find out, too.

"I don't know what the signs are," he said. "I'd have to ask Baffert."

Mandella has been seeking a victory in a major stakes for few years and has several candidates that could pull it off. Crown of Thorns was second by a nose in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last November but has been plagued by a throat ulcer and soreness in recent months. He is at a local farm and expected to return to training in the spring.

Matto Mondo, third in the 2009 Santa Anita Handicap, suffered a tendon injury last year and will be sidelined until late summer. Witty, a 4-year-old filly, returned from a nine-month layoff last week to win an allowance race and stretch her unbeaten streak to four. She could start in the Grade 3 Las Flores Handicap here April 4 or the Grade 1 Madison Stakes at Keeneland on April 8.

The next horse that does emerge for Mandella will need to be very good to keep up with the predecessors. Mandella has trained Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the 2003 BC Classic and 2004 Dubai World Cup; Rock Hard Ten, winner of the 2005 Big Cap; and The Tin Man, who won the 2006 Arlington Million and 2007 Shoemaker Mile.

Then, there was Oct. 25, 2003, when Mandella won four Breeders' Cup races when it was a one-day event. His winners were: Pleasantly Perfect (Classic), Johar (Turf), Halfbridled (Juvenile Fillies), and Action This Day (Juvenile).

Mandella's next graded stakes win will be his first since Meteore won the Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar last August. The slow times, he insists, are not a letdown.

"That's life," he said. "I don't have a stable of a million horses. I keep it the same on purpose. We try to keep it to 60. Right now, it's 50. It will grow when the 2-year-olds come on."

Mandella, inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 2001, has not had a Kentucky Derby starter since Action This Day and Minister Eric were sixth and 16th in 2004. He has saddled six Derby starters in his career, with Soul of the Matter's fifth-place finish in 1994 his best result.

It is not a race that he obsesses over, but one that remains on his mind. Conversely, not many trainers have won the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup. Mandella, 59, said he will have a starter in this year's Kentucky Derby "only if I thought I had a chance."

"It's not like I don't think about it," he said.

Mine That Bird made one start for Mandella, finishing 12th in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile here.

"One thing I would say is I wouldn't know a Derby horse if I had it in my hands," he said. "The jury is in on me."

He said he has no ill feelings about missing an opportunity with Mine That Bird. Considering that Mine That Bird was dismissed at 50-1 and had been beaten in two prep races at Sunland Park, it's hard to scold Mandella for letting one get away.

"I couldn't believe that was him, running like that, the way he finished," Mandella said. "Calvin Borel, God bless him, what a ride he gave him. He would have won if he'd taken him to the outside fence."

Setsuko, owned and bred by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer does not have any graded stakes earnings, which determine the Kentucky Derby field if the race oversubscribes. That makes his appearance in the Sham even more important. A win Saturday could have Mandella plotting a way to Churchill Downs on May 1.

"We need to see a big race," Mandella said. "It's time. He's had enough racing. He should be good enough."