One Perfect Day

The San Gabriel Mountains could barely be seen against the black morning sky. Then, just before 5:30, a fiery glow appeared, illuminating the peaks off to the east. As in 1993, raging fires had broken out near Santa Anita, although these were some 30 miles away.

Inside Barn 4, trainer Richard Mandella had other things on his mind.

He sat down at his desk, with two black and white kittens curled up between him and the back of his chair. He finally had time to handicap the four Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships races in which he had horses entered. Confident all would run well, Mandella still had no idea that in a few hours he would ignite a fire of his own that will never be extinguished.

Awaiting him were an unprecedented four Breeders' Cup victories, topping his remarkable day 10 years ago at Santa Anita, in which he won two Breeders' Cup races, as well as a pair of undercard stakes. Not only would he win four Breeders' Cup races, he'd do so for four different owners.

Outside Mandella's office, the imposing 2-year-old filly Halfbridled, the undefeated morning line favorite for the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), walked the shed. Right behind her was the big, powerful 5-year-old Pleasantly Perfect, who would close out Mandella's day in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Mandella's son, Gary, stood outside the office watching them and was amazed at the size and strength of Pleasantly Perfect.

"Look at him; he's a dinosaur," Gary Mandella said. "God sakes, just look at him. He's massive. But he's the nicest horse in the world. You can take a nap with him in his stall and he'd just lay there with you; it wouldn't bother him at all."

Gary, a longtime assistant to his father, now had 22 horses of his own at Hollywood Park, and would be saddling Gold Sphinx in the last race of the day, a one-mile allowance event on the grass.

With post time for the first race scheduled for 9:40 a.m., the elder Mandella had already shaved and would soon change clothes in one of the grooms' quarters. There was a calmness and assurance about him, similar to a general preparing for battle knowing he had superior forces and artillery. His wife, Randi, said he'd been sleeping well at nights, which was not always the case before big races.

Mandella opened the Daily Racing Form and he and Gary began handicapping the races for the first time. When he got to the Classic, he was particularly interested in the pace scenario, with Pleasantly Perfect being a come-from-behind horse and needing a stiff, honest pace.

"OK, let's see, Evening Attire, he lays far back," Mandella said. "Volponi lays back a little, but was up there in last year's Classic. Funny Cide, it didn't do any good to rate him like that; he should be in the first three. Hold That Tiger was up there in the Woodward (gr. I), but the fractions weren't that fast. Dynever doesn't have much speed. Perfect Drift's been running slow fractions. Medaglia d'Oro, he'll be on the lead or second. Congaree's got good speed. Ten Most Wanted has turned into a real good horse. So, it looks like there'll be three or four horses who will be sitting right there. I could give my jockey a little pea shooter and have him peck 'em in the (butt) first time around. Make 'em pull a little bit."

Mandella did not appreciate several published comments that this was an inferior Classic, due to the defections of Mineshaft, Candy Ride, and Empire Maker. "I don't understand how they can say that," he said. "You've got the winners of the (grade I) Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Travers, Whitney, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Classic. How can they say that's a bad field?"

After handicapping the races, Mandella called to assistant trainer Becky Witzman and had her put Pleasantly Perfect's legs in an ice tub, as well as keeping them in ice boots. The colt had bruised a bone in his foot over the summer, and Mandella was covering all bases.

Finally, it was time for Mandella to start getting ready. Everything was in motion for one of the greatest training achievements of all time. Every minute detail had been accounted for. "I'm excited," he said. "But it's tough getting those wins. Nothing left to do now but put 'em in there and let 'em roll."

And roll they did, right into history.

Among those who accompanied him were jockey Alex Solis, who had scored his 4,000th career victory the day before, and owner Gerald Ford, who began racing Thoroughbreds in 1995 under the name Diamond A Racing Corp. With Mandella's help in 2000, Ford purchased 815 acres of the former Brookside Farm, owned by the late Allen Paulson, for a little over $11 million, renaming it Diamond A Farms.

One of their horse purchases was a son of Pleasant Colony out of the Affirmed mare Regal State whom they had bought at the 1999 Keeneland September yearling sale for $725,000. Named Pleasantly Perfect, the colt would be plagued by a series of bizarre setbacks.

At two, after being broken at Calumet Farm, Pleasantly Perfect was sent to Mandella at Hollywood Park with some heavy baggage. "They complained that he wouldn't get fit," Mandella said. "He just wouldn't show any improvement."

When he continued not showing improvement, veterinarian Rick Arthur checked him out and could tell right away something wasn't right. Mandella said every time the colt would gallop, he'd return as if he'd just run 10 miles and his heart rate would go down. He was sent to San Luis Rey Equine Hospital, where it was discovered he had contracted a virus that had settled around his heart sac, inflaming the heart.

When Mandella got the colt back, he ran him in a 11/16-mile maiden race on the grass and Pleasantly Perfect was eased. He still was suffering the effects of his virus. The next day he was sick and Mandella sent him to one of the nearby farms he uses. He stayed for about five months. It wasn't until January of his 4-year-old campaign that Mandella was able to run him in a maiden race at Santa Anita, in which he finished second. He broke his maiden in February, and later won two more races, which set him up for his first stakes appearance, the 2002 Pacific Classic (gr. I). He circled the field out in the middle of the track and rallied to finish fourth, beaten 23/4 lengths. When he came back and turned in one of the most breathtaking performances of the year, winning the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) by 31/4 lengths in 1:46.80, Mandella felt he had a big chance in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

But just before leaving for Arlington Park, Mandella found out Pleasantly Perfect would not be permitted to run in the Classic, due to the bleeders rule in the state of Illinois. The colt had bled from the nostrils in the Goodwood, and because he had also bled in a workout in February of 2002, he was a two-time bleeder, which meant he would not be allowed to race in Illinois for 30 days after his last bleeding episode.

So, Mandella put Pleasantly Perfect away and brought him back for a winter campaign. After finishing third in the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) and fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), Pleasantly Perfect came down with a sore foot. A month later, he started suffering from slight body soreness and was forced to miss the Hollywood meet.

"Finally, just before we moved down to Del Mar, he put it all behind him," Mandella said. "He had a very smooth Del Mar meet, and I realized he was going to be ready for the Goodwood. I'd give him one more good shot to make the Breeders' Cup, and either he was good enough or he wasn't."

It turned out he was, winning the Goodwood off a seven-month layoff. He showed what little effect his half-length victory had on him by coming back 10 days later and working five furlongs in company in :583/5. At first, Mandella was not happy he had worked so fast, but after thinking about it, he concluded it was what the horse needed to indicate his sharpness.

The next work would be different. This time he'd go it alone and be more relaxed. Mandella told exercise rider Crystal Brown, "I want him to breeze by himself today. Have your stick with you, just to make sure he's serious about it. Keep him off the fence, about three horses wide and go at a nice steady clip. I don't want him to break off with the pony and get away from you. Just have him on his toes. I'm figuring he'll go in :59 and change by himself. If he does better than that, it's because he's doing good."

Pleasantly Perfect is very sensitive about someone touching his ears, and Mandella had a tough time holding his head still to put the blinkers on. He told groom Humberto Correa to make sure he braided the colt's forelock for the race Saturday, so the loose hairs didn't get under his blinkers and bother him. As he walked alongside the horse on the way to the track, he was amazed how big and strong he was. "He's a big guy, isn't he?" he said. "I wish I was that big. I'd be a nasty bastard."

Mandella was waiting for Pleasantly Perfect to break off at the five-eighths pole when the colt came charging past him. "How did I miss him?" he said. "Well, at least I can't be unhappy with it, can I?"

When Witzman found out the time and told Mandella the colt had worked in :574/5, he said, "I don't believe it; I don't believe it. Maybe he is better than last year."

Mandella told Brown the time of the work, and her response was one of equal surprise. "What? Are you serious?" she said.

There was no doubt Pleasantly Perfect was ready for the race of his life. Even with Mineshaft, Candy Ride, and Empire Maker gone, the Classic still was a top-class race, with any of the 10 starters having a legitimate chance to win. A victory by Medaglia d'Oro, Funny Cide, or Perfect Drift would likely lock up Horse of the Year honors, with Congaree and Ten Most Wanted also having a shot at the title.

Medaglia d'Oro was coming off a nine-week layoff, but Frankel had him fit and razor sharp. On the Sunday before the Breeders' Cup, he worked the colt in company with Watchem Smokey, with Pat Valenzuela up. When Medaglia d'Oro walked alongside Watchem Smokey, Valenzuela, who would be riding Congaree in the Classic, told Frankel, "Hey, Bobby, the only way he could look any better is if I was on him."

Baffert felt he finally had Congaree right where he wanted him, and was just happy to make the race after the colt suffered a quarter crack the week before. "He weighed 1,140 pounds when he was kicking (butt) here this winter," Baffert said. "But then he got light on me and went down to under 1,100 pounds over the summer. Now he's back up to 1,150 pounds. He's ready and you're gonna see the real 'Congo' on Saturday."

The surprise entry was Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, who had originally been scheduled to run in the Discovery Handicap (gr. III). It was then decided to run instead in the Empire Classic against New York-breds, but that plan also was changed, with the Sackatoga Stable gelding finally winding up in the Breeders' Cup Classic off a 12-week layoff.

The day before the Breeders' Cup, a shower of ash fell on Santa Anita from the cloud of smoke that had blown westward. With continuing temperatures hovering around 100 degrees and Santa Ana winds predicted for Breeders' Cup day Oct. 25, there was the fear of unhealthy conditions. But the winds never materialized and the fires stayed to the east, as blue skies gave way later in the day to a light veil of haze.

The crowd of 51,648 made Medaglia d'Oro the 5-2 favorite, followed by Ten Most Wanted at 4-1, Perfect Drift at 5-1, and Congaree at 6-1. Pleasantly Perfect closed at 14-1.

But by the time the horses were being saddled for the Classic, all eyes were on Mandella, who had swept both 2-year-old stakes with Halfbridled and 25-1 shot Action This Day and dead-heated for the win in the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) with Johar. Only D. Wayne Lukas had won three Breeders' Cup races in a single year, having accomplished the feat back in 1988.

The start was a rough one for Medaglia d'Oro, who was bumped by Congaree. That forced Jerry Bailey, on Medaglia d'Oro, to challenge for the early lead, rather than track Congaree.

"I broke a bit slow, but just enough where Congaree decided to close the door, and I couldn't let him go on the lead alone," Bailey said. "If he did close the door, I wouldn't get out for a while, so my only option was to let him run up in there, even though I knew I was taking a chance of running a pretty quick pace."

Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree were at each other's throats every step of the way through testing fractions of :22.79, :46 35, and 1:10.32. The first turn proved to be a disaster for Ten Most Wanted, as Funny Cide bore out into Perfect Drift, which forced Pat Day to check sharply on Ten Most Wanted, taking him out of contention.

Solis, meanwhile, was able to settle Pleasantly Perfect in eighth, about 10 lengths off the lead. He rallied between horses, moving to within five lengths of the leaders at the quarter pole. "He was sharp, but he relaxed right away," Solis said. "When I got to the backside, I started to look to see who was in front of me, and right away I saw Gary Stevens on Perfect Drift. He was one of the horses to beat, so I followed him to the inside. Gary asked his horse and he didn't seem to be responding, so I said, 'OK, it's time to go out now.' I got him in the clear and he felt so strong I knew he was going to give me a big run down the stretch. I switched my stick to my left hand and he just went by those two horses."

Pleasantly Perfect rolled right on by Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree and drew off to a 11/2-length victory in 1:59.88 for the 11/4 miles.

Medaglia d'Oro finally got the better of Congaree in the final yards and eased clear, holding off the late charge of Dynever, who nipped Congaree by a neck for third. Hold That Tiger, who loomed a threat nearing the quarter pole, faded to fifth. Congaree came back with several gashes on his flank, caused by the whip of Valenzuela, according to assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes.

As Pleasantly Perfect crossed the finish line, a tremendous roar poured out from the grandstand in recognition of what had just transpired.

Santa Anita general manager Chris McCarron watched the race with Witzman by the jockey's scale, and thought she was in shock. "Chris grabbed me," Witzman said. "He thought I was going to faint."

Mandella, soaked with sweat and with a grin from ear to ear, couldn't believe what he had accomplished. "I guess I might as well just stay home all the time; forget traveling," he said as he made his way to the track.

After the race, Ford, who resides in Dallas, said that he was "thrilled with the race," and he anticipates keeping Pleasantly Perfect in training next year. "Yeah, I'll vote for that," a jubilant Mandella said.

The whole day was an emotional experience for Mandella, who signed dozens of autographs after the Classic. Following Halfbridled's victory in the Juvenile Fillies, he called his mentor and "second father," V.J. "Lefty" Nickerson, back in New York. The day didn't end with the Classic. Mandella saddled Redattore to a third-place finish in the Seabiscuit Handicap, then watched Gary's horse, Gold Sphinx, win his race.

"I'm really rooting for Gary," he said before the race. "He's such a great kid." After the race, Mandella was as happy as if he had won another Breeders' Cup race. "I want to have grandkids someday, and Gary has to make enough money to be able to afford one," he said with a big smile on his face.

As he walked back to his barn following one of the greatest days in the history of the sport, Mandella took off his jacket, flung it over his shoulder, and let out a big sigh of relief.

"Oh God, I'm exhausted," he said "But it's a good exhausted."

Solis showed up at the barn and kidded with Mandella. "I give you a $4-million ride and a $2-million ride, and I charge you, what, $55?" he said. But there was no one more humble and appreciative than Solis, who has taken a lot of criticism for his lack of Breeders' Cup success.

"All the hard work paid off," Solis said. "I'm proud of what I've done in my life, but my family is the most important thing to me, and it was so special to have them here today. I've always taught my kids, you live life once, so live it to the fullest, and don't ever take the easy way out. I always had faith that God was saving something incredible for me, and this was it.

"It was so special to share it with Dick. He always had faith in me and put me on a lot of great horses. When people would remind him that I've only won one Breeders' Cup race (in 40 mounts), he'd always say, 'Yes, but what about all the million-dollar races he's won for me, so what's the big deal?' "

Trainer Kenny McPeek, who barely knows Mandella, summed it up best when he said, "There is no trainer in North America who deserves this more. If every horse trainer was like Dick Mandella, this game would be great."

A little after 5:30 p.m., the Mandellas got in their white Land Rover and headed for dinner in Santa Monica. It might as well have been a white horse riding off into the sunset.


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