03/03/2015 12:11PM

Mandella reaches back into South American pipeline

Shigeki Kikkawa
Catch a Flight (right), one of trainer Richard Mandella's South American imports, will make his U.S. stakes debut in the Santa Anita Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The California handicap division in the mid-1990s belonged to trainer Richard Mandella and his squad of South American imports – Gentlemen, Malek, Sandpit, and Siphon.

Combined, they won 24 stakes in the United States from 1994-99, including a staggering 10 Grade 1 races. Those figures could have been higher if they were not beating each other at times. Siphon, Sandpit, and Gentlemen were the first three finishers in the 1997 Santa Anita Handicap. Less than four months later, Gentlemen, Siphon, and Sandpit swept the top three spots in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

“Those were a lot of good horses,” Mandella recalled last weekend.

Such domination may never happen again, but the 64-year-old Mandella has a smaller group of South Americans in his Santa Anita stable who may continue that legacy. On Saturday, Catch a Flight, third in a Group 1 race in Brazil last year, will make his American stakes debut in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. This spring, Bal a Bali, a winner of 10 of 11 starts in South America who overcame a bout with laminitis last year, will have his first start in this country.

Bal a Bali’s illness last year kept him from an attempt at the Breeders’ Cup Turf. A 5-year-old, Bal a Bali won the 2014 Rio Triple Crown.

“You couldn’t have better credentials,” Mandella said.

Catch a Flight has more to prove. A 5-year-old by Giant’s Causeway, Catch a Flight has won 7 of 12 starts and earned just $93,239. He won five consecutive allowance races in Brazil from November 2013 to March 2014 and was later third in the Group 1 Sao Paulo Stakes at about 1 1/2 miles on turf last April.

Catch a Flight joined Mandella’s stable in the autumn. He finished third in his debut in an optional claimer at a mile Jan. 19 and won a similar race at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 13 under Gary Stevens, giving the Hall of Fame jockey his 5,000th win in North America.

Stevens rides Catch a Flight in the Big Cap, which is run at 1 1/4 miles. Mandella is quick to note that Catch a Flight will need to be much sharper Saturday than he was in the Feb. 13 race to beat Shared Belief, the champion 2-year-old male of 2013 who will be a heavy favorite in the Big Cap.

“He seems to be improving,” Mandella said. “I would have liked if he could have been a little more impressive last time, but he did what he had to do. He’s healthy, and he’s sound. He looks like he can get a mile and a quarter.”

Mandella said the Big Cap is preferred to another allowance race.

“I can always get a two-other-than, but I can’t always get a Santa Anita Handicap,” Mandella said. “He’s acclimated very well. He got two races in him. We know how good the favorite is, but it is a $1 million race.”

Mandella has three career wins in the Big Cap – with Siphon, Malek in 1998, and Rock Hard Ten in 2005 – and a few close losses. In 1995, Best Pal rallied to finish second by a head to Urgent Request. In 2011, Setsuko was beaten a nose by Game On Dude in a roughly run race subject to a lengthy stewards’ inquiry.

“I should have won at least four,” he said. “Best Pal came running and ran a hell of a race.”

Best Pal was part of Mandella’s stable from the middle of 1994 until the end of his career in early 1996. Those were the initial years when the four South Americans thrived in Mandella’s stable. All four were Group 1 stakes winners in South America. There was no magic formula for their success in the United States, the Hall of Fame trainer said.

“It was my training, sure,” he said. “They would have been good horses anywhere for anyone.”

Mandella may someday say the same about Bal a Bali and Catch a Flight.