Mandella, History, and Leaving California

It was 15 years ago when Richard Mandella actually thought about leaving California and moving East. Obviously, that didn’t last very long. Mandella actually had those thoughts while in New Jersey prior to winning the 2000 Haskell Invitational with Dixie Union. It was during his brief stay in the Garden State that Mandella heard the call of the history sirens, who enticed him by putting him under their hypnotic spell and taking him back in time…way back.

Mandella, you see, is a racing history buff, and it is the East, not the West that is steeped in racing history, going back to the 19th century. Mandella had undergone a cathartic experience in a little central Jersey town called Jobstown, and it was actually difficult to determine whether his visit to Jobstown or winning the Haskell was the more memorable experience.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but it is interesting to note that Mandella has not won a stakes back East since taking the Paumonok Handicap with the Jerry Moss-owned Lexicon in 2001, the year after winning the Haskell.

In fact, he hasn’t won a stakes outside California since taking the 2006 Arlington Million with The Tin Man. He has won stakes in Dubai in 2004, scoring in the Dubai World Cup with Pleasantly Perfect, and at Oaklawn Park in 2001 and ’02, including a victory in the Oaklawn Handicap with Kudos.

Now that he’s had a resurgence of his career over the past three years, Mandella has journeyed back east to Keeneland to saddle Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The last time Mandella visited the Keeneland winner’s circle, whether literally or figuratively, after a stakes win was in 1996 when he captured the Commonwealth Breeders’ Cup with Afternoon Deelites.

Prior to 2000, Mandella was building the foundation for a Hall of Fame career, winning a bounty of stakes with South American imports Gentlemen, Siphon, and Sandpit, among others, as well as playing the role of villain by snapping Cigar’s 16-race winning streak with Dare and Go in the Pacific Classic. Since 2000, Mandella has won 147 stakes, 87 of them coming in a seven-year period between 2000 and 2006. Over the next six years, however, from 2007 to 2012, he won only 29 stakes. But thanks in part to Beholder, he’s been back on a roll, winning 31 stakes in the last three years.

We are all aware of Mandella’s remarkable record in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, winning two BC events and two undercard stakes in 1993, winning an amazing four Breeders’ Cup races in 2003, and scoring victories with Beholder in the 2012 Juvenile Fillies and 2013 Distaff. But even with his success, there comes the stigma of being a one-track trainer when it comes to the Breeders’ Cup.

Mandella would love nothing more than to return to the historic Bluegrass, home of the Keeneland Library, the nerve center of racing history, and leave his mark there with the greatest filly he has ever trained, who is destined one day to join him in the Hall of Fame.

To demonstrate just what a history buff Mandella is, and why he became so overwhelmed by it during his 2000 visit that he actually thought about moving East, let’s turn the clocks back to that Haskell draw.

Prior to the draw, Mandella happened to be discussing that he was reading a book about the legendary trainer Sam Hildreth for the second time. Hildreth had co-written a history of American racing called, “The Spell of the Turf,” published in 1926. Hildreth, who trained such greats as Zev, Grey Lag, and Mad Play, was the trainer for Harry Sinclair, who owned the famed Rancocas Stud in New Jersey, previously the birthplace of Iroquois, the first U.S.-bred to win the English Derby in 1881. Founded by Pierre Lorillard in the 1870s, Rancocas was first farm to breed and raise a Kentucky Derby winner and English Derby winner.

Hildreth turned Rancocas Stud into the showplace of American breeding; the most lavish, innovative stud farm in the country, complete with indoor and outdoor training track, magnificent and ornate rooftops and cupolas, and an entrance gate that looked more like the entrance to the palace of Versailles. The farm was completely open other than the front gate that stood by itself overlooking the road with no other fencing or gates around it.

So successful was Rancocas Stable, it set a record for earnings in 1923 that stood until 1941 when it was broken by Calumet Farm, which won the Triple Crown that year with Whirlaway. Hildreth also won the Belmont Stakes seven times – three for Rancocas with Zev, Grey Lag, and Mad Play and two for August Belmont Jr. with Hourless and Friar Rock. He won it with Jean Bereaud in 1899 and with Joe Madden, who he owned, in 1909. Hildreth was the leading money-winning trainer in the country nine times, a record that stood for more than 60 years until broken by D. Wayne Lukas in 1992. To demonstrate just how unique a horseman Hildreth was, he was also the leading owner in the country for three consecutive years from 1909-11.

There was no doubt that Hildreth was Mandella’s hero and he couldn’t read enough about him. Mandella had been turned on to books, especially racing history books, by his mentor, trainer V.J. “Lefty” Nickerson. In no time, Mandella, who had never read a book in its entirety before meeting Nickerson, began absorbing the old-time tales of the Turf, including jockeys like Tod Sloan and Fred Archer, like a sponge.

Now that Mandella was in New Jersey, the home of Rancocas Stud and the ghost of Sam Hildreth, the heck with the Haskell. Somewhere there was hallowed ground on which he wanted, maybe even needed, to stand. He realized that Rancocas probably was long gone, but that didn’t matter.

“I wish I knew exactly where it was located,” Mandella said. “Even if it’s now a shopping center or condos, I just want to stand on that ground. I don’t care how far away it is.”

I told him to sit down. “Well, you’ll be interested to know that not only do I know where Rancocas Stud was located, it’s still there,” I said. Mandella the veteran horse trainer suddenly turned into 9-year-old Ralphie, who was just given a Red Ryder Range Model Air Rifle BB gun, the “Holy Grail” of all Christmas presents.

I explained that it was now called Helis Stock Farm, home of the Helis family that used to own horses, including the top-class Helioscope, who stood at Darby Dan Farm. The farm was located in the tiny hamlet of Jobstown, only about 20 minutes from my house. It consisted of about 10 old buildings and a church. I had driven by the farm several times on my way home from Great Adventure, and even drove in once for a quick look. It was sprawled out as far as the eye could see, covering over 1,300 acres. The stunning front gate was still there, as was the training track, although overgrown, and trainer’s stand, and several of the barns. It had been converted by the family of the late William Helis into a cattle, produce, and tobacco farm, but you could still feel the history all around you.

Mandella quickly hit the phones, trying to get a name and number for the farm manager to see if it was possible for him to come for a visit. Somehow he located the person and explained the situation, and was told by the manager what time to meet him. With Mandella not having a clue how to get there, I told him I would drive to Monmouth and meet him the following morning and show him how to get there. It was probably about an hour's drive back across the state. So, the next day, Mandella, his wife Randi, and I got in their rented Explorer, hit the New Jersey back roads, and headed back about a hundred years. On the way, he kept pointing out houses in which he would love to live.

We drove into the farm, and in no time, there was Mandella with a look of awe and wonder on his face and disposable camera in hand, standing on that same hallowed ground he had been reading about. When he looked out on the one-mile training track, the thought hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks that he would love to make an offer on the farm and convert it back into a working Thoroughbred training facility.

After all, this was where 1923 Kentucky Derby winner Zev, who won a historical match race against the European champion Papyrus, once worked and galloped. Mandella continued on through the indoor training track and barns and could envision their one-time elegance and charm and what they must have looked like back in the glory days of the farm. He looked out over fields of corn and soybeans where the legendary Iroquois once frolicked as a youngster. The history books were coming alive. Words like “amazing” and “unbelievable” flowed freely for the next two and a half hours.

You would never guess that Mandella was running a horse in the Haskell the next day, who was schooling in the paddock as he toured the farm. The present was on hold for the time being and thoughts of Dixie Union would have to wait.

After profusely thanking farm manager Ed Lovenduski, Mandella reluctantly departed, with visions of what it would be like to restore this farm to something resembling its former glory and train there. But reality soon set in. The Helis family had no desire to sell or turn it back into a horse farm. As for Mandella, he won the Haskell the next day, went back to California, never to return. The pipedream was over, but for a brief moment in time he was able to escape into a magical world that had existed only in books and in the imagination.

Three years later, Mandella, back in the comfort of his Santa Anita barn and back to reality, was contemplating that day’s Breeders’ Cup races. He knew he was loaded, but how could he ever dream of topping 1993?

The San Gabriel Mountains could barely be seen against the black morning sky. Just before 5:30, a fiery glow appeared off in the distance, illuminating the mountain peaks to the east. As in 1993, raging fires had broken out near Santa Anita, although not nearly as close as it did 10 years earlier, when the smoke came down the mountains like a volcanic cloud and engulfed the racetrack.

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.

Outside the 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. 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,” he 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.”

With post time scheduled for 9:40 a.m., Dick had already shaved and would change clothes in one of the groom’s quarters. There was a calmness and assurance about him. Randi said he had been sleeping well at night, which was not always the case before big races.

Mandella opened the Racing Form and he and Gary began handicapping the races for the first time. Dick was particularly interested in how the Classic would play out in the early stages. Pleasantly Perfect, being a come-from-behind horse, needed a pretty fast pace, so Dick went over every horse in the race, determining where each one would be.

After handicapping the race, Mandella called to assistant 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 to get ready. Everything was in motion for one of the great training achievements of all time. Every minute detail had been accounted for.

“I’m excited,” Mandella said. “But it’s tough getting those wins, especially in the Breeders’ Cup.  Nothing left to do now but put ‘em in there and let ‘em roll.”

And roll they did, right into history, as Mandella won the Juvenile Fillies with Halfbridled, the Juvenile with longshot Action This Day, the Turf with Johar, who dead-heated with the previous year’s winner High Chaparral, and the Classic with Pleasantly Perfect.

Following the Classic, Mandella, soaked with sweat, couldn’t believe what he had accomplished. “I guess I might as well just stay home all the time; forget about traveling,” he said.

As he started to make his way back to the barn, signing numerous autographs along the way, he couldn’t wait to call his mentor and “second father,” Lefty Nickerson back in Smithtown, N.Y., who had suffered a stroke seven years earlier. Mandella just wanted to share the moment with the man who had taught him so much, including the joys and wonder of reading books and of history.

Nickerson normally had a sharp one-liner for everything, but on this occasion he was truly emotional when he told Mandella, “Your mom must be proud of you. I’m proud of you, too.”

As an emotionally drained Mandella walked along the back of the grandstand and approached the horse path, he took off his jacket and flung it over his shoulder.

“Oh, God, I’m exhausted,” he said. “But it’s a good exhausted."

Mandella had been kidding when he said “I might as well just stay home; forget about traveling.” As it turned out he didn’t do much traveling, with his only big win out of town coming in the 2006 Arlington Million.

But now, nine years later, with the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland for the first time, he has no choice but to leave the friendly confines of Santa Anita. This past Monday he hit the road with Beholder, who will attempt to become the first horse ever to win three different Breeders’ Cup races.

Rancocas Stud, Sam Hildreth, and New Jersey are now just a distant memory. For Dick Mandella, there is more history to be made.

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