07/07/2011 11:44AM

Second to none at the distance

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Some races are tailor-made for the inclinations of certain trainers. When it came to Woody Stephens it was the Belmont Stakes, which he won five times in five years. Charlie Whittingham owned the San Juan Capistrano, America’s longest major race on grass, with 14 winners spread out over 32 seasons. For Bob Baffert it has been the Del Mar Futurity, nine of them so far, including seven in a row.

Richard Mandella, a Hall of Famer since 2001, seemed destined to collect as many 1 1/4-mile main-track races for older horses as possible. The money was good, his clients approved, and the satisfaction ran deep.

When the rulers of Dubai first hung out a purse of $4 million at 1 1/4 miles on the dirt in March of 1996, it didn’t matter that Mandella had to go halfway around the world to chase it. He was there with Soul of the Matter, who gave Cigar all he could handle.

His appetite whetted, Mandella returned home and proceeded to win the next half-dozen major events out West, doubling up in the Pacific Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Hollywood Gold Cup between the summer of 1996 and the winter of 1998. They call that being in the zone.

In 2003, Pleasantly Perfect gave Mandella a Breeders’ Cup Classic, at 1 1/4 miles on the dirt, then drove the point home the following year by winning both the Dubai World Cup and the Pacific Classic. No other horse has ever won all three.

It has been a while, though, since Mandella nailed one of the big ones, dating back to Rock Hard Ten’s win in the 2005 Santa Anita Handicap. If this hiatus bothers Mandella, he hides it well, preferring to answer the question with the well-tuned Setsuko, a 4-year-old son of Pleasantly Perfect, who will be in the thick of things for the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday afternoon.

Mandella has won the Gold Cup twice, with Siphon in 1996 and with Gentlemen in 1997.

Siphon was a voracious Brazilian who easily beat Cigar’s stablemate Geri and was so full of spunk barely an hour later back at the barn that he took a bite out of a racing writer’s dress shirt. Mandella laughed.

The following year Siphon was no match for Gentlemen, his stablemate and an Argentinean bruiser who had as much raw talent as any horse Mandella has ever trained. The turf horse Sandpit finished third that day, giving Mandella a 1-2-3 hullabaloo that echoed Whittingham’s similar Gold Cup sweep in 1973 with Kennedy Road, Quack, and Cougar II.

It has been 14 years since Mandella’s last Gold Cup win, but it’s not for lack of trying. In 1998 he was second and third with Puerto Madero and Gentlemen behind Skip Away. In 1999 he was third with Malek in a slam-bang finish with Real Quiet and Budroyale. Kudos was third to Congaree for Mandella in 2003, Olmodavor was second in 2004 behind Total Impact, and Congrats finished third to the emergent Lava Man in 2005.

Can Setsuko come through for Mandella where some of those others failed? His rap sheet says second-place is the colt’s preferred finishing position – 6 of his 13 starts have ended up there – and after a while that becomes part of a horse‘s identity.

“I don’t know who to blame,” Mandella said, playing innocent. “He’s a good horse, and there are some similarities to Pleasantly Perfect. But I think I‘d rather have Pleasantly Perfect.”

Who wouldn’t? Mandella, who knows when to take a shot, could be accused of overreaching with Setsuko. The colt has run in races like the Santa Anita Derby, Malibu, and Santa Anita Handicap while still eligible to a nonwinners-other-than maiden or claiming. Did Mandella misplace his condition book?

“I tried him in that allowance race at Santa Anita,“ Mandella protested, referring to a race in January. “He still finished fourth.”

Setsuko also came out of that allowance race with traces of a lung infection, which cleared up in time for him to tout Mandella into taking another shot. At 25-1 in the Handicap, the colt was tempting for those who remembered the days when he was angling to make the Kentucky Derby.

To his credit, Setsuko did everything but win the Santa Anita Handicap. Game On Dude finished a nose in front of him and then survived a long stewards’ inquiry over an incident entering the stretch, at which point Game On Dude appeared to straighten the turn from his inside position and shift outward several lanes under left-handed whipping. The ensuing pinball effect, with Twirling Candy bouncing around between Game On Dude and Setsuko, seemed to attract most of the stewards’ attention, however, and they let the result stand.

Setsuko sustained a minor injury in the ruckus and recovered quickly. Mandella’s faith in the judgment of stewards, however, is taking a little longer to be restored.

“It’s the worst call I’ve ever seen,” said Mandella, who has been licensed for nearly 40 years. “And it would have been even if my horse hadn’t been involved. That was the Santa Anita Handicap. I like that race. It should be taken seriously.”

All the key players from the Handicap will be back for the Gold Cup, including Victor Espinoza on Setsuko, Chantal Sutherland aboard Game on Dude, and Joel Rosario on Twirling Candy, who beat Setsuko just over a length in the Californian on June 4.

“My horse ran a nice race that day, and Twirling Candy still beat him easy, when he had every right not to win,” Mandella said. “Like I said, Setsuko is a good horse, and he‘s been training like he means it. When he comes with his race, though, Twirling Candy is something else.”