Mandella 'On Fire' Again With Beholder

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.


Leave a Comment:


Thanks for the run-down, Steve... Lenny may also recall that Mike Ness penned a poignant ballad regarding the 03 fires... That Saturday morning, before heading to the cup, we surfed HB with snow-like ash - when we got there (around 10:50) I was almost certain the event was in danger of being cancelled... I didn't know you guys then, and often remember by popping in On The Muscle... It was a very surreal day... See you both soon, hoping no ash - we have had an extremely dry year! PS - cashed on Perfect that day, not so much on the others - but looking forward to rooting Indy Point with our Argentine contingency!

24 Sep 2013 7:25 PM
Paula Higgins

Oh yeah, I would have been out of there before you could count to 5 after the first puff of smoke. Nothing scares me more than a fire. Not even snakes. Fires can move so fast it is unbelievable. Me, the horses, cats etc. would have been long gone.

Great article Steve. Would love to see Beholder do well. But I think this is Royal Delta's to win or lose. She is a very, very good horse and I think she should be racing the boys.

24 Sep 2013 9:30 PM
Pedigree Ann

Yet another reason not to site the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita permanently.

25 Sep 2013 9:26 AM

Thank you for another insightful, entertaining piece!

On another note, am I the only one who is really glad Beholder is a "live contender" in the DISTAFF rather than the Ladies Classic?  Breeders' Cup got that decision right!

25 Sep 2013 10:47 AM

I agree with you, Pedigree Ann.  The Breeder's Cup should not be held permanently at Santa Anita.

25 Sep 2013 1:17 PM
Arts and Letters

I'm soooooo glad they renamed the race back to the Distaff!  Now they just need to get rid of a few of the races they've added through the years and get back to 7 or 8 really good ones, and we'll be set!

25 Sep 2013 4:16 PM
Karen in Texas

It will be a daunting task for Beholder to prevail over Royal Delta in the Distaff, but it's not impossible.

I am in total agreement with those who believe the Breeders' Cup should not be held at Santa Anita permanently, as well as with those who are pleased with the return of the label "Distaff" to the BC race for fillies/mares three years old and older. I find "Distaff" to be much more dignified and much less patronizing.  

25 Sep 2013 6:17 PM

I often watch the end of Mandella's DVD "On The Muscle" with an account of that wonderful day in 2003 and enjoy it each time.  I'm glad the race has regained its rightful name, the "Distaff".  It'll be fascinating to see who wins it.

25 Sep 2013 8:02 PM
The Deacon

The fire was just awful but fellow bloggers that could happen anywhere. I don't want to get anyone's dander up but what's wrong with holding the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita.

The weather is usually perfect, the San Gabriel backdrop makes it a stunning showcase for the world to see all the horses have an equal playing field. Eastern horses did well last year and the Euro's have historically done well.

I for one did not like Churchill Downs in November. I wouldn't mind Belmont Park as an alternate but most of all these tracks are famous for a particular race, let Santa Anita have the Breeders Cup. Great place to vacation, lots to do. You can take in the beach, Universal Studios, the Hollywood Blvd. experience and just about anything else.

Just my opinion...........

27 Sep 2013 3:06 AM

Long time to get back to racing.


Mandella trained Rock Hard Ten, one of my favorites. Got to love him just for that. And I really have enjoyed watching Beholder and always backed her.

As far as the fillies and mares go, I think some folks are just in a rut with certain words.

"Distaff" simply means anything female. (Named after a staff shaped like a "y".) "Lady". on the other hand, denotes a female who is well bred. Which term best describes the likes of Personal Ensign, Royal Delta, Zenyatta, Lady's Secret, and Bayakoa to name but a few? Sorry folks, to me, these are all Grand Ladies who deserve every inch of being called a lady.

As much as I would like to see the Breeders' Cup rotated, when I take the weather variables into account, I couldn't think of a better permanent home than Santa Antita. And we do seem to get more international competitors when it is held there.

28 Sep 2013 11:12 AM

We lived in Alta Loma, CA, which lies in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains in '03 when an arsonist was setting fires in several locations there. Your pictures look sadly familiar, Mr. Haskin.

We visited Santa Anita several times and found it to be a lovely place. I think that if the Breeders Cup were to decide on a permanent location, Santa Anita would be the best choice. Considering the lateness in the year that these races are run, the weather in California can't be beat. I believe it suits the European horses more than cold and rainy/snowy would. I know it would suit me better!

28 Sep 2013 2:00 PM
Paula Higgins

Congrats to MMM and his connections. Good race and I was really happy to see Paynter run well too. Ron the Greek and Little Mike were a nice surprise since neither one was even close to being the favorite. Happy for Mike Smith too. Princess of Sylmar was impressive and no surprise there. Last but not least, I was very happy to see Beholder do well. All in all, a very good day in racing. It is going to be an interesting and exciting Breeders Cup Series.

29 Sep 2013 1:24 AM
Linda in Texas

Steve, brilliant article. Beholder wins, you must be psychic on top of everything else choosing her as the central topic the week of the race.

Hi Slew. Sure miss your postings with every article not responded to. I look for your guidance and put it to good use.

Paula, well written and i could not agree more. Mike and Mike were a real treat to watch. What a gutsy little horse. Real Solution and Big Blue Kitten coming in 2 and 3 was nice for Mr. Ramsey.

It was hard for me to watch Royal Delta lose. Losing just is not a word i equate when thinking about her and i hated to see her let this one slip away. I hope she is not becoming 'Rachelistic' and tiring of racing.

Laughing wire to wire was another great race. But I worry more about the ones who don't win than do. And i purposely say that while thinking of Joyful Victory. Such a regal looking filly/mare and she is fast approaching retirement. She carries herself like she trains with books on her head! Odd observation but i try not to miss a thing.

And i still respect Paynter. Always will. All things considered, it was a nice day of racing just like Paula said.

Thanks Steve. Appreciate you.


29 Sep 2013 2:26 PM
Old Old Cat

Wonderful well written article, again.  Almost like being there.

You remind me of a typical Dick Francis hero.  You're always there with your pen and brownie instamatic, or throw-away.  Keep writing.

On the Breeder's Cup subject, Has anyone thought about having the races at two different tracks, on the same day, with start times staggered 15 (or 20)minutes from the end of the previous race?  One day of non-stop simulcast wagering, and TV coverage.  Odd numbered races at one track, even at the other. pick 3-4-5-6.. up to pick godzillion.  what a headache, minds would explode.

30 Sep 2013 9:05 AM

Gee, Cat, Dick Francis's heroes are memorable for being battered and/or maimed: hung from the ceiling in handcuffs, one hand slashed to ribbons, dehydrated and dying of thirst in Africa, shoulder broken by a psycho mobster, beaten with chains, and on and on ... and soldiering on.

30 Sep 2013 10:28 PM
Paula Higgins

Linda in Texas, could not agree more with not wanting to see Royal Delta lose. It's like world karma is off if she loses. Shouldn't happen. But as you noted, maybe she has other things on her mind. I hope not, not yet.

30 Sep 2013 10:53 PM

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