08/09/2006 12:00AM

Part of the game that every trainer dreads

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Richard Mandella was East Coast jet-lagged and operating on about four hours of sleep, and yet there he was Wednesday morning, watching a turf worker from high atop the patrol tower just past the Del Mar finish line, then threatening to grab the railings of the almost vertical iron ladder and slide dramatically to the ground.

"On second thought," he said, checking the angle, "maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea."

No wonder he's in the Hall of Fame.

Mandella had just spent a whirlwind three days in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., at the behest of patron Wayne Hughes, primarily about the business of the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale. That's where he was - inspecting young horseflesh - early Monday morning when he got one of those rotten calls that something had gone wrong back home. Very wrong.

The 4-year-old Gone West colt Sheriff Jordan, owned by Gerald Ford's Diamond A Racing, fractured a leg at the end of a six-furlong work on the Del Mar main track so severely he could not be saved. The fact that Sheriff Jordan had just recorded a best-of- the morning time of 1:11.20 merely added a sick twist to the tragedy.

"To have to call your dad and tell him something like that while he's away is awful tough," said trainer Gary Mandella, who was temporarily watching the shop.

"The benefit of working for a guy like my dad is that he takes so many things into account, that what happened on Monday is very, very rare. But even one is too many. That's our attitude, anyway."

Richard Mandella said that Sheriff Jordan was a sound horse, which of course sounds familiar, since according to just about every trainer who ever lived the only horses who suffer fatal breakdowns are perfectly sound. Right.

In Mandella's case, however, even cynics must take heed. Horses rarely die under his care - so rarely that after 34 years of training them he still carries each memory close to his heart.

On Friday, Mandella will head for Arlington Park to run The Tin Man in Saturday's Arlington Million, but he will not be able to walk 20 yards onto the the backstretch without flashing back to the horror of the 1996 Beverly D. Stakes and the freakish injury that took the life of the brilliant filly Matiara. Pulled up on the backstretch, she apparently had suffered some kind of injury behind. Mandella rode at her side in the ambulance, but then suddenly she began to sag, almost literally, in his arms. She was dead by the time they got back to the barns, having hemorrhaged internally from a femoral artery nicked by a fractured pelvis.

"It's going to happen to everybody at some time," Richard Mandella said Wednesday, still dealing with Sheriff Jordan's death. "But if there's a pattern, then you'd better look hard at yourself."

Until he sees the official UC Davis autopsy results on Sheriff Jordan, Mandella will not be 100 percent satisfied that there might have been something he missed. In the meantime, he is anxious for the day that the condition of California's main tracks can be eliminated as a leading contender for the cause of catastrophic injuries.

Mandella was the first name-brand California trainer to advocate a change to synthetic surfaces, more then three years ago. Today, a chorus has grown around him.

"I can't guarantee it's the answer," Mandella said. "But we've kind of run out of suggestions. Our tracks have never gotten any better. In fact, I think we've actually gotten them worse. We think we can tune them up by maintaining them. Instead, whatever you do, it's different in three days.

"So maybe what we need right now is a material no one can mess with," Mandella added. "I know Polytrack and the others are expensive, but you know what? Never mind the money. How many lives could it save - horses and people? The girl on my horse was lucky, but she could have been crippled."

Monday, then, was one of those days. Still, Mandella mustered enough of a stiff upper lip to join fellow Hall of Famers at the annual induction ceremonies. He delighted in Carl Hanford's tales of Kelso, and he tried not to take offense that Allen Jerkens's introduction of Bill Boland - at three or four sentences - was nearly twice as long as the classic Jerkens "Here he is" intro that he delivered for Mandella himself on induction day in 2001.

What Mandella really enjoyed, though, were the memories stirred by the induction of Cougar II, the grand grass champion who raced for Mary Bradley and Charlie Whittingham. Mandella still beams when someone mentions the winter of 1973 when, as Lefty Nickerson's 22-year-old man in charge, he saddled Big Spruce to upset Cougar in the San Luis Rey Stakes. In the subsequent San Juan Capistrano, Mandella and Big Spruce beat Cougar again, although they fell short by a head of catching the front-running Queen's Hustler.

For days, Mandella chewed on the results, often to Nickerson by phone from New York. "Damn," went Mandella's mantra, "one more jump and we had that sonofabitch." Mandella likes to laugh at his youthful angst.

"After about four days of that, Lefty says to me, 'Well now, Richard, we went a mile and three-quarters. Exactly how many jumps do you think we need?' "