First there was 1993, then 2003, now 2013. Will the cycle continue? Richard Mandella has had two of the greatest days any trainer has ever had in the Breeders’ Cup, certainly the greatest single day by far. But with those big days have come an outbreak of fires in the Los Angeles area.
Mandella showed last year he can win a Breeders’ Cup race at Santa Anita in a year not ending in the number “3” and without the accompanying fires. But now we’re back in a cycle year, and while he doesn’t have the ammunition he had in ’93 and ’03, he does have a live contender in the Distaff in Beholder, who captured the Juvenile Fillies last year.
Looking back, it was several days before the 1993 Breeders’ Cup and fires were being reported all around Los Angeles, with updated news reports on TV dominating the airways.
As my DRF colleague Ed Fountaine and I were driving down Huntington Ave., heading to the track, it was still dark out. Ed, who had been glued to the TV the past few days, said, “Can you imagine if fires broke out in these mountains this close to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Seconds later, we crossed through an intersection and I looked over to my right, and there in the darkness, was the reddish glow of a newly ignited fire atop the San Gabriels, directly across from Santa Anita. I won’t repeat the expletives that followed at this surreal sight (for an Eastern city boy).
After arriving at the track and attempting to make my usual rounds, I, along with everyone else, kept gawking at the mountains, as the fire continued to spread. As the morning grew lighter, a monstrous cloud of smoke began to move down the mountain, getting larger and more ominous by the minute until it had engulfed the entire mountain and the town of Sierra Madre, nestled beneath its slopes. It was now heading toward Arcadia and the racetrack. I just happened to have a disposable camera with me, so I was able to photograph this spectacular, but horrifying sight (see photos below).
The following morning, as I left my hotel room, which was located a couple of miles from the track, the smell of smoke inundated the hallway. Several trainers, headed by Bobby Frankel, had loaded their Breeders’ Cup horses on a van and moved to Hollywood Park to train. At Santa Anita, a yellow-tinted smog had enveloped the track, and the few exercise riders who were out there wore surgical masks, due to the strong smell of smoke. I had to keep my hand over my nose and mouth the entire time I was out there until I finally left to seek fresh air.
A few days later, with the fires and the smoke and the smog gone, Mandella went out and won four stakes on Breeders’ Cup day -- the Juvenile Fillies with Phone Chatter, the BC Turf with eventual Horse of the Year Kotashaan, and two supporting stakes.
This bizarre and surreal Breeders’ Cup ended appropriately with the largest priced winner in the history of the event – the French-trained Arcangues at 133-1 – taking the Classic.
Fast forward 10 years later. It is the morning of the Breeders’ Cup. For the past few days, fires had broken out several miles east of Santa Anita. While they never reached the track, the winds had blown the ashes over the track. The auxiliary press box at Santa Anita was the section of seats at the far end of the grandstand, right at the clubhouse turn. All day, reporters had to cope with ash raining down on their heads and their laptop computers.
I arrived at the backstretch early and decided to hang out at Mandella’s barn. I was covering the Classic for The Blood-Horse, and felt he had a big shot to win it with Pleasantly Perfect, who was coming up to the race in great shape and had worked brilliantly.
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. It was 1993 all over again, but at least the fires were far enough away not to affect the Breeders’ Cup. It was obvious, however, they were still around and close enough to be seen.
Inside Barn 4, 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 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 as long as the history of the Breeders’ Cup is recorded.
Awaiting him were an unprecedented four Breeders' Cup victories, topping his remarkable day 10 years earlier at Santa Anita. 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, 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. 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, 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, 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 (now a producer at HRTV) 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.
Well, it is now 10 years later, and here we are again back at Santa Anita. Although Mandella is not loaded like he was in 2003, he does have a big chance to add the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to his already impressive list of winners.
Beholder has already captured two grade I stakes this year – the Santa Anita Oaks and Las Virgenes. But her greatest effort might very well have been her gutsy second-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks at 9-1. She recently returned from an injury to win the one-mile Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar, which should set her up for Saturday’s Zenyatta Stakes and then a crack at another Breeders’ Cup win over her home track.
“The Torrey Pines was a very good comeback race,” Mandella said “She won easily and gave us a lot of optimism that there’s more to come. She’s a very gifted filly and we couldn’t ask for much more. I hate to say one ever has to win a particular race, because there’s always room for excuses in racing. So, we’re just hoping she runs a very good race.”
Mandella could have another Breeders’ Cup starter in Indy Point, a multiple grade I winner in Argentina, who runs in Sunday’s John Henry Turf Championship, and did have a legitimate contender for the BC sprint in Jimmy Creed, who was retired last month after suffering a ligament injury.
Over the past two decades, Mandella has straddled the line between hero and villain. He became the latter when he ended Cigar’s historic winning streak in the Pacific Classic with 39-1 Dare and Go after nearly pulling off the dastardly deed earlier in the year in the inaugural Dubai World Cup with Soul of the Matter.
But his heroic moments have far outweighed his villainous deeds, culminating with his four Breeders’ Cup victories in ’93.
I can still see him, soaked with sweat and with a grin from ear to ear, making his way back to the barn signing dozens of autographs and then calling his mentor and “second father,” Lefty Nickerson to share in this special moment.
A little after 5:30, the Mandellas got in their white Land Rover and headed for dinner in Santa Monica. As they drove out, the Land Rover might as well have been a white horse riding off into the sunset.
Another 10 years have passed and we’re back at Santa Anita, and you can bet Mandella’s amazing feats will be the subject of numerous retrospectives.
This time, however, he hopes the only fire will be inside Beholder when she looks the reigning queen Royal Delta in the eye.
The beginnings of 1993 fire could barely be seen in the dark.
As it grew lighter, the fire began to spread and move down the mountain.
An ominous wall of smoke headed directly toward Santa Anita.
The smoke is about to engulf Santa Anita, forcing many trainers to move their horses to Hollywood Park.