11/25/2003 1:00AM

Mandella: Our man in Japan

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - About 800 backstretch workers will tuck into a full-course Thanksgiving meal Thursday morning in the Hollywood Park stable cafeteria, courtesy of track management. The rest of us will wolf down the local racing card before traveling over hill and dale to some relative's house for the traditional holiday feast of turkey, pie, and NFL football.

Then there is Richard Mandella. As often as possible - which has been five times in the last 11 years - Mandella prefers to celebrate his Thanksgiving in the shadow of Mount Fuji by running a horse in the Japan Cup.

This year, Mandella is in Tokyo with Breeders' Cup Turf co-winner Johar. Still flying high from his unprecedented four-winner Breeders' Cup day, Mandella arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday just in time for the observance of Kinro Kansha no Hi, also known as Labor Thanksgiving Day. Two Thanksgivings in one week? With the year he's had, Mandella needs at least that many to be properly grateful.

By now, Mandella is fairly comfortable with the Japanese culture and its unique commingling with Western influence. A few things still get lost in translation - Mandella deeply sympathizes with Bill Murray's character in the recent movie of that name - but he has come a long way since his first visit to Tokyo in 1993 with his first winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf, Kotashaan.

Japan Cup Day is a major occasion, a sporting holiday, attended by upward of 150,000 fans. Racing begins early and then, after a break for lunch, runs deep into the afternoon. Foreign horsemen must learn to deal with a pre-race routine that lasts more than an hour and requires two elaborate staging areas, linked by a long journey through a tunnel that winds through the bowels of the massive grandstands of Tokyo Race Course.

In 1993, Mandella arrived at the course early on Japan Cup Day to give Kotashaan a walk and a bath, and deal with any last-minute details. It was worth the trouble. With its purse of $3.6 million, the '93 Japan Cup was the richest race in the world.

"It was cold as hell," Mandella recalled. "Then the sun came out, so I spread a horse blanket on the lawn to take a little nap. It was about 11 o'clock, and we weren't running for hours yet."

About then, along came the group of Japanese investors who had purchased Kotashaan from Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, with the sale to be effective the day after the Japan Cup. Mandella was asked if he would like to join them for a visit with the Emperor and his Royal Family in their private racetrack box.

Mandella, far from being impolite, simply misunderstood. He confesses that he skipped the part in high school world history about the Emperor of Japan being a "heavenly sovereign" and the "incarnate divinity."

"I thought they were talking about the box seats, like at Santa Anita," Mandella said. "So I said, 'Nah, tell them I'll stop by during the races.' They just kind of looked at me and left."

A few hours later, after Mandella had boosted Kent Desormeaux aboard Kotashaan in the breathtaking amphitheater of a walking ring, he mentioned to his hosts that he wouldn't mind saying hi to the Royal Family now, wherever they were. "It's too late," Mandella was told. "That's the Royal Box we just passed."

Mandella looked in the direction of a large, multi-storied building in the midst of the grandstand complex, clearly set apart for a special purpose, both in terms of ceremony and security. Mandella immediately grasped the extent of his error.

"I swore I thought he said 'box,' " Mandella said, still shaking his head.

Mattered not, though. Mandella still had a chance to bask in the Emperor's glow. Because of his stellar American record, which included six major stakes wins on the grass - all for Desormeaux - Kotashaan was the firm favorite to defeat an excellent Japan Cup field that included fellow Americans Luazur and Star of Cozzene, Europeans Urban Sea and White Muzzle, and the New Zealand ace Naturalism.

After trouble on the first turn, Kotashaan uncorked a steady run and was attacking the leader, Legacy World, as the field crested the steady rise in the stretch and approached the final sixteenth. Then Desormeaux stopped riding, thinking the race was finished, and allowed Legacy World to spurt away. A half-dozen strides later, Desormeaux realized his mistake and put Kotashaan into a drive, only to fall 1 1/4 lengths short and end up second. There is no doubt he should have won.

"I am truly embarrassed," Desormeaux told reporters afterward. "It's not supposed to happen to a first-class rider. I can't apologize enough to the fans."

Mandella suffered the defeat in heartbroken silence. He saw no reason to point out the obvious. Later in the day, after a round of interviews, the trainer found himself in a grandstand elevator with Kotashaan's new owners. The bad news was not mentioned. The good news, though, was that Kotashaan might be kept in training with Mandella for another season. The trainer was asked, just out of curiosity, "Who would be his jockey?"

"I said, 'Oh, we'd have to stay with the same guy,' " Mandella recalled. "They said nothing, and the subject never came up again."

Loyalty, it seems, suffers nothing in translation.