11/27/2002 12:00AM

Prodigal son enjoying return to racetrack


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Gary Mandella admits he had to leave the job he most enjoys to realize what he was missing.

After growing up around the Southern California stable of his father, Richard, Mandella spent two years as a commentator on the TVG network, from 1999 to 2001. At the time, he was little more than a weekend visitor to his father's stable. But in the late 90's, before he took the television job, Mandella was a full-fledged assistant trainer to his father.

When his television contract ended in June 2001, Mandella didn't hesitate to return to racetrack work.

"Some of us get along better with horses than people," he said. "I knew I wanted to come back and put more time into it."

Last March, Mandella opened a small public stable, while continuing to work closely with his father.

On Saturday, Mandella, 29, will attempt to win his first graded stakes when he runs Man Among Men in the $200,000 Generous Stakes for 2-year-olds at Hollywood Park. The Grade 3 Generous is run over a mile on turf.

Man Among Men is the top 2-year-old turf male in California this year with victories in his last two starts. The recent success is a turnaround from Man Among Men's career debut, when he finished last in a five-furlong sprint on dirt at Hollywood Park on June 22.

The poor performance left Man Among Men at 8-1 for his turf debut in a one-mile maiden race at Del Mar on Aug. 26. He won by 5 1/2 lengths, and followed with a hard-fought victory in the restricted Pinjara Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 24.

"Sprinting him on the dirt didn't work too great," Mandella said. "He needed to go long. I pointed for Del Mar and the grass came up first. I knew he'd improve. After he ran like that, we knew we had two stakes we could plan for."

Mandella was particularly impressed when Man Among Men worked on the turf on Nov. 14, finishing the final three furlongs of a seven-furlong workout in a swift 35.40 seconds after joining another worker.

Man Among Men is the best horse that Gary Mandella trains. Based at Hollywood Park, Mandella operates his public stable and keeps a few horses for his father, most of whom are just coming back into training or are a few days away from a race at Hollywood Park.

Over the last few years, Richard Mandella has been amazed at his son's interest in racing - and training.

"I tried everything I could to discourage him and keep him from going through the misery, but he kept coming back," Richard said.

Through it all, Gary's success has been a source of pride for Richard and his wife, Randi.

"It's been really exciting," Richard said. "To watch his horses run, I get more excited than my own. When he won [the Pinjara] last month, we were at the offtrack in Arlington Park. We were cheering so much that people looked at us like we were crazy."

Along with Friday's $200,000 Miesque Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, the Generous Stakes is the nation's richest turf stakes for 2-year-olds.

After the Generous, Man Among Men could try dirt again.

Gary Mandella remembers that the colt's sire, Gentlemen, who was trained by his father, could race on both dirt and turf. The colt's owners, R.D. Hubbard and Connie Sczesny, have never had a runner in the Kentucky Derby.

"I don't have a plan of when or where he will try it," he said of racing Man Among Men on dirt. "As adaptable as Gentlemen was at both surfaces, you want to find out if [Man Among Men's] the same."

Golden Apples zips a half-mile

Golden Apples, who will go favored in Sunday's $500,000 Matriarch Stakes, breezed a half-mile in 46.20 seconds on turf Wednesday. The time was faster than trainer Ben Cecil expected.

"That was a little too quick - again," Cecil said. "I wanted to go in about 49."

Last Thursday, Golden Apples worked six furlongs in 1:11, which Cecil also felt was too fast.

"She's galloping as strong as she's working," he said. "If I didn't think she's coming up to it well, I wouldn't run her."

The 4-year-old Golden Apples is a leading contender for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding turf female. She won the Beverly D. and Yellow Ribbon Stakes earlier this year, but failed to clinch the title when she finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Arlington Park on Oct. 26.

There are six probables for the Matriarch. The others are Banks Hill, the 2001 champion turf female, Affluent, Choc Ice, Dress to Thrill, and Tates Creek. Tout Charmant, the winner of the 2000 Matriarch Stakes, is passing the race.

The Matriarch is one of three $500,000 races in the six-race Autumn Turf Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday.

The $500,000 Hollywood Derby will feature Century City, Inesperado, Johar, Mananan McLir, Music's Storm, Rock Opera, Royal Gem, Surprized, and Union Place.

Saturday's program is highlighted by the $500,000 Citation Handicap over 1 1/16 miles. Good Journey, the winner of the Atto Mile and the third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Mile, is the 123-pound highweight and expected favorite.

Big chalk runs out

The show payoffs for Wednesday's first race were unusually high after Dixie Thrill, the 4-5 favorite, finished fourth in the field of five. Winner Sudden Glory paid $32.40 to win and $21.40 to show. Runner-up Jekyll and Hyde paid $8.80 to show, while third-place finisher Immense Variety paid $16 to show.

Dixie Thrill attracted $30,342 of the $37,418 bet in the show pool. After leading to the final turn, he finished 3 3/4 lengths behind Sudden Glory.