04/09/2003 11:00PM

Working up an appetite for roses

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Ah, life on the road. Airport hassles, sterile hotels, rental cars reeking of cigarettes. The clothes you pack are never the clothes you need, and heaven forbid there should ever be a meal worth the effort to both chew and swallow.

Gary Mandella, on the other hand, has discovered the deep-fried wonders of the Dixie Cafe in Hot Springs, about a mile down Central Avenue from Oaklawn Park, where on Saturday he will saddle Man Among Men in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby.

On Thursday morning, the son of Hall of Famer Richard Mandella and his California entourage were tucked into their booth at the Dixie Cafe, licking their chops at the smells coming from the kitchen. No tofu or bean sprouts for these boys. They were going native. A caller interrupted and naturally wondered what the trainer had ordered.

"A chicken-fried chicken sandwich, of course," Gary replied. "With fries, and red beans and rice."

The caller's left arm went briefly numb. Hopefully, it is impossible for cholesterol levels to rise via long distance. Mandella was asked about a green vegetable.

"Vegetable," Mandella said, as if the word lacked meaning. "Let's see. I've got some pickles here. Does that count?"

Fortunately, the long and lean Mandella pays considerably more attention to the health and dietary needs of Man Among Men.

The colt is a robust customer, still fleshing into his roomy frame. By the time he is 4 or 5 he could be a sight to behold. But first Man Among Men must survive a king-sized supply of 3-year-old expectations.

As a son of Hubbard's handicap star Gentlemen and a winner of a stakes on grass at age 2, Man Among Men also made the mistake of defeating pre-Derby favorite Empire Maker in a little race called the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in early February. He looked great that day, and the 1 1/8 miles of the Sham only added to the package. Suddenly, Mandella found himself at the wheel of a potential Derby caravan.

Then came the San Felipe Stakes on March 16, in which Man Among Men was a hot 5-2 second choice to Domestic Dispute. Empire Maker cranked up the pressure another notch by romping in the Florida Derby the previous day, but in the San Felipe, Man Among Men was no more than a timid bystander. After he finished a distant seventh to Buddy Gil, an endoscopic examination revealed that he had bled.

"I wouldn't blame anybody who kind of snickered at what I've said," Mandella explained between bites. "I shipped my horse from Hollywood to my dad's barn at Santa Anita to run him over there. That was Sunday, and by Tuesday he had four horses with temperatures. I believe that could have knocked my horse down to where he was susceptible to doing something like bleed.

"Considering how bad he ran, he was really knocked out, and that was a real telltale sign," the trainer went on. "If it was the kind of race where he decided he didn't like the dirt, he would have come back kicking the barn down. That's what usually happens when you run a horse on the wrong surface."

Mandella took the all the precautions before moving on.

"His blood wasn't quite right after the race," he said. "Then when we took it three days later, it was good. We X-rayed his lungs and saw a little bit of activity from the bleeding, but it was nothing terrible. So we decided to push on and see where the pushing got us, and he continued to get better from there.

"What you have to do is watch them that much closer," Mandella said, "and make sure that when they get a little dehydrated or a little over-stressed that you're on top of it. That you don't go breezing them. Give them time to recover.

"And there will be times you can't run your horse right back," he added. "You can't let the schedule dictate where you breeze and where you run. If he would have taken another step back after that, we would have come up with a whole other plan. But because of what we discovered, I don't think he'll be a problem bleeder - at least not under normal circumstances."

It has been six years since Mandella has graced the Arkansas spa, when, as his father's assistant, he brought Atticus from California to win the 1997 Oaklawn Handicap. Gary also had a front-row seat during Richard Mandella's preparation of such Kentucky Derby runners as Soul of the Matter and Afternoon Deelites.

Now the Arkansas Derby will determine whether or not the son will have a Derby horse to call his own. Any excuses going in?

"None," Mandella replied. "He looks like he's doing real well. His coat has come back good. His weight's good. He's training very well, and he hasn't missed a meal since he's been here."

Hay, oats, and chicken-fried chicken.

"My goal is to get enough publicity out of the Derby trail so I can write a diet book," Mandella said. "People are going to be so much happier when they get on my diet."