02/02/2004 1:00AM

Olmodavor takes Whirlaway for Mandella


NEW ORLEANS - In trainer Dick Mandella's barn, Pleasantly Perfect is the all-star handicap horse. Olmodavor, the understudy, isn't bad either. A day after Pleasantly Perfect won the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita, Olmodavor out-kicked Spanish Empire to win the Grade 3, $100,000 Whirlaway Handicap at Fair Grounds.

Olmodavor seems to thrive here. Last season, he shipped in and finished second to Mineshaft in the New Orleans Handicap, and the Whirlaway was his best performance since then. Racing near the back of the pack under Corey Lanerie, Olmodavor made steady progress around the far turn, engaged Spanish Empire before the eighth pole, and edged clear in deep stretch, winning by three-quarters of a length. Olmodavor, who paid $5 as a favorite, ran a mile and one-sixteenth in a modest 1:45.59 over a fast track still slightly wet from overnight rain. Almuhathir ran late and finished third.

Olmodavor, a 5-year-old A.P. Indy horse owned by the Wertheimer brothers, didn't race for almost eight months after the New Orleans Handicap. He won the Grade 3 Native Diver in early December, but had little run when called upon in the Jan. 3 San Pasqual Handicap, finishing third. Sunday, the same thing appeared to be happening.

The early pace in the Whirlaway was slow, with Spanish Empire tracking El Ruller through an opening quarter-mile in 24.53 seconds, but these two picked it up as they turned onto the backstretch, and the half-mile went in 47.54. A half-mile into the race, Olmodavor had lost a little position and raced in eighth, and Lanerie didn't like what he felt beneath him.

"I actually hit him on the backstretch to get him going, and he really didn't go forward," Lanerie said. "At about the five-sixteenths pole, he finally started picking it up."

And when Olmodavor came, he came quickly. Spanish Empire, who had disposed of El Ruller, tried to counter on the inside, and he fought back bravely, but Olmodavor had the momentum and, eventually, the victory.