10/27/2003 12:00AM

Racing's man of the hour


ARCADIA, Calif. - A Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park, with its early, made-for-TV post time, means chili and beer for breakfast. It means SWAT teams and mariachis in the paddock gardens; hazy, smoke-filled skies; nightmare traffic; and a long line at the Seabiscuit statue for photo ops at the end of the day.

It also means that Richard Mandella will have a very good time.

It didn't start out that way. When the Breeders' Cup first came to the foot of the San Gabriels in 1986, Mandella ended up with the short end of the stick after Sprint contender Phone Trick went wrong and failed to make the race. It took awhile to get over that one.

By 1993, Mandella had rallied. He ran two horses in the Breeders' Cup that year and won with both, including the Turf with Kotashaan to nail down Horse of the Year. Still, there was bitter with the sweet. Phone Chatter, Mandella's Juvenile Fillies winner, came out of the the race with a fractured leg and never ran again. Sardula, the filly Phone Chatter beat, went on to win the 1994 Kentucky Oaks.

Then came last Saturday, when the Breeders' Cup returned to Santa Anita for its 20th running, and the game learned a lesson it will never forget. Mandella and his crew brought seven horses to the paddock for four of the eight races, and they won all four - or 3 1/2, if you want to quibble about the dead heat in the Turf.

"No," said John Gosden, a Mandella admirer for years. "Give him the full four. Half the Turf is still a million-dollar race."

Fair enough. Four it is. Four winners for Mandella on the day of days, and nearly a third of the purse money on the table, when even the most famous representatives of the horse-racing universe were hard-pressed to escape with a single win. Ask Bobby Frankel how tough it was last Saturday, and if you can't find him, try Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, or Neil Drysdale.

The Breeders' Cup World Championships are not to be confused with baseball's World Series, which is usually the Yankees' to win or lose, or the World Cup, which belongs to an elite rotation of three or four countries. This is Thoroughbred racing, an endeavor of infinite unpredictability, egalitarian to a fault, in which nearly anyone can wake up one morning with a horse of extraordinary talent.

To dominate such a rich tapestry with four winners on racing's most significant day is almost unthinkable. Lukas came within a nose of winning four back in 1988 - Personal Ensign's nose, in fact - so at least the thought had been planted. In the end, it was Johar's determination to dead-heat High Chaparral in the Turf that put Mandella alone in the record books.

He has been there before. Besides those two Breeders' Cup wins in 1993, Mandella's vita sheet includes six straight victories in million-dollar races, a stable dead heat in a Grade 1 event, and the distinction of stopping Cigar's 16-race streak cold at Del Mar in 1996. All of those accomplishments adds up to a place in the Hall of Fame.

"I want everyone to know just how much work it takes from a lot of good people," Mandella said Sunday morning.

He gave ample credit to a stable staff that ranges from Pleasantly Perfect's exercise rider, Crystal Brown, who has been with Mandella so long "she used to make haircut appointments for me when I needed them," to assistant trainer Becky Witzman, who was still in high school in 1993, to his priceless grooms, some with 20 years of service.

"They do the work in those stalls every day, and believe me, it's hard work," said Mandella.

He paused. "But I'm the brains."

Brains, heart, soul - the whole ball of wax. At 52 (his birthday is Nov. 5), Mandella comes off as a guy who can't decide if he wants to be Jay Leno or George Patton. When NBC cameras pushed too close to Halfbridled in the walking ring before the Juvenile Fillies, Mandella backed them off with a warning. Later that day, as the temperatures mercifully fell and shadows began to cool the Santa Anita barns, Mandella stripped off his jacket and rolled like a happy Labrador in his patch of pampered grass. He'll grow more next year.

"We've been in Charlie's barn for three years now," Mandella said, referring to the weathered shed rows once occupied by Charlie Whittingham. "We've been doing a lot of digging and planting in the garden. We finally found it."

No question, good karma never hurts. Pleasantly Perfect, Halfbridled, Johar, and Action This Day eat and sleep in the same stalls once occupied by the likes of Sunday Silence, Ferdinand, Ack Ack, and Turkish Trousers. Even so, even surrounded by such noble spirits, the job tends to nurture self doubt. Little wonder Mandella prefers to leave the pre-race interviews to trainers with more to say.

"I don't know why," Mandella said the Tuesday before the Breeders' Cup. "But I woke up this morning feeling very tense. Maybe it's because all the horses are doing so good. I'm still amazed it's happening, that they've all got to this point, and I think they all really have a chance."

That is exactly the way they ran, one after another, right down the throats of the game's toughest competitors - Halfbridled, unbeaten and now champion; Action This Day and Minister Eric, one-two in the Juvenile with the third horse five back; classically prepared Johar, dealing with the best Europe had to offer; and Pleasantly Perfect, defying illness and injury to crown Mandella's perfect day.

It was also a good day in Idaho Falls, where Tina Mandella watched and wagered on the Breeders' Cup, at the Sandy Downs simulcast facility, 50 miles from her home in Ashton.

"I took $20 with me and bet it all on Halfbridled," said Tina Mandella, Richard's mother. "Then I played with that $66 the rest of the day. And I really needed Johar to get that dead-heat, too, because I had him in the triple with Action This Day and Pleasantly Perfect."

By the end of the afternoon, Tina Mandella was doing local radio interviews as the proudest mother in horse racing. Her only regret was that Richard's father missed the show. Eugene Mandella - adventurer, rancher, and all-around horseman - died on Nov. 12, 2002, at age 79.

"He taught Richard a lot, but he was an old-fashioned horseman," Tina Mandella said. "He could be tough with horses when he had to be. Richard, he treats them like his children.

"I'm very proud of him. I always have been. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but you know, watching him on the television all day, I don't believe I've ever heard him talk so much in my life."

Then again, he never had so much to talk about.