05/23/2008 11:00PM

Mandella's newest old-timer

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Don't be misled. Richard Mandella knows how to train horses that were foaled in the 21st century. Why, just last year he won both the Norfolk Stakes and the CashCall Futurity, and his 2-year-olds of 2008 promise to be heard from later this summer.

So it is only a coincidence that Mandella will try to win Monday's $250,000 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park with 9-year-old Perfect Drift after winning last year's Shoemaker Mile with The Tin Man, who was also 9 at the time.

Asked to describe the telltale traits of the typical 9-year-old Thoroughbred racehorse, Mandella replied, "I really don't know. There's not that many around."

Fair enough. They are truly a rare breed, and creatures to be cherished when they still can compete at the highest levels. The Tin Man was so resilient for so long that he even might have been around to defend his Shoemaker crown if he hadn't taken a bad step coming out of anaesthesia from exploratory joint surgery last Oct. 25 and fractured his right knee. Mandella, feeling rotten about the whole unlucky affair, kept The Tin Man under his direct care for six months after the freak injury, nursing him back to pasture soundness before cutting the strings and sending him north to River Edge Farm, where farm manager Russell Drake is in charge and owner Ralph Todd can drop by any time.

"He's got a nice grass paddock with a corner shaded by trees," Todd said. "Russell told me he hasn't raised his head yet, just eating grass."

The Tin Man earned $3,663,780 during his career. Todd plans to spend some of it in an attempt to give the old horse every chance for a long and peaceful retirement.

"The knee is stiff, and he chooses not to lay down," Todd said. "That's not so bad - horses sleep standing up. But as soon as breeding season settles down here, we'll take him over to the Alamo Pintado clinic to see if somehow the calcification can be cleaned up, and if there's some kind of physical therapy that can help him be as comfortable as possible on that knee."

There is legitimate surprise that Perfect Drift hasn't been retired to a field of his own. Bred and owned by the family of Dr. William Reed, a noted Kansas City heart surgeon, Perfect Drift has been a model of solicitous care and campaigning. But it has been a while since the gelding has been considered among the country's best.

The memory of Perfect Drift's third-place finish to War Emblem in the 2002 Kentucky Derby has grown dim. News clips recounting his upset of eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft in the 2003 Stephen Foster have yellowed with age, while the heartache of losing the 2004 Whitney by a nose and the 2005 Pacific Classic by a half-length has long since healed.

The seasons of 2006 and 2007 for Perfect Drift were winless. He reached what looked like the end of the line at Churchill Downs on July 8, 2007, with a modest effort in a stakes-quality allowance race. After a thorough diagnostic exam that revealed a minor problem, he went home to Reed's Missouri farm for a rest.

As a result, Perfect Drift's record achievement of running in the Breeders' Cup Classic five straight years was snapped last fall. In fact, while the 2007 Classic was being run at Monmouth Park without him, Perfect Drift was recovering from his own surgery, performed on Oct. 14, to repair a suspicious left fore cannon bone that flared up shortly after he was sent to Mandella for a possible California comeback.

"He had just the hint of a fracture," Mandella said. "We put a screw in it, and it really did the job. It's healed great. But it wasn't a big deal going in, otherwise we wouldn't have bothered. He would have been retired."

Perfect Drift enters the Shoemaker with earnings of $4,680,690. When his people say he owes them nothing, in truth it's the people who carry the debt for Perfect Drift's years of service. Perfect Drift, however, was born lucky. The Reed family has doted on his every need, giving him regular vacations at the end of each season and deferring to the concerns of his former trainer, Murray Johnson.

"Murray did a fabulous job with the horse," Mandella said. "I just hope I can do as well."

Make no mistake. The pressure on the ownership is real.

"I know that we'll be subject to criticism, particularly if he gets hurt in a race," Reed said. "If Richard called me today and said it's time to stop, then that's great. But I'm convinced that a horse knows when you believe in him. And I believe running the older horses, if they're sound and enthusiastic, is good for racing."

Certainly, if they run true to their best form, horses like The Tin Man and Perfect Drift can serve as counterweight to racing's self-destructive retirement of healthy young stallions. The old guys anchor the game, spreading lore in their wake. Perfect Drift, for instance, used to carry a locket of John Henry's mane beneath his saddle when he raced.

"We lost that at some point," Reed noted. "But now my son has found a small replica of a heart that Perfect Drift can carry."

In honor of Dr. Reed's profession, no doubt.

"No, actually because of The Tin Man," Reed replied. "You know, from the Wizard of Oz - 'If I only had a heart.' "

It can't hurt. But heart is one thing Perfect Drift has never lacked.