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For Mandella, It's as Simple as One, Two, Three

Santa Anita: Trainer sends Gentlemen, Siphon and Sandpit in attempt to win Big 'Cap for the first time.

March 01, 1997|BOB MIESZERSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly seven years ago, Richard Mandella did something no other trainer in Southern California had done before and none has since.

For the 1990 Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park, thoroughbred trainer Mandella sent out both Beautiful Melody and Reluctant Guest. At the end of the 1 1/8-mile turf race, the 4-year-old fillies were in a dead heat for the victory.

Sunday, there would be no complaint from Mandella if he were able to go that one better.

Set to run three horses in the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, Mandella could live with a triple dead heat.

The odds against that are astronomical, but chances are that Mandella will be celebrating his first Big 'Cap win Sunday evening.

His trio of Gentlemen, Siphon and Sandpit will probably be the first three betting choices in the 1 1/4-mile race.

Arguably the best horse in the country, Gentlemen has rebounded from a last-place finish in his American debut last June 19 to win five consecutive races. He ran to a track-record-shattering victory in the Native Diver Handicap two months ago.

Considered only a possible starter in the Big 'Cap until last Sunday, because he is also scheduled to run in the $4-million Dubai World Cup on March 29, the 5-year-old is the marquee name in the 60th Santa Anita Handicap and definitely the horse to beat.

Like Gentlemen, Siphon began his career in South America, and he has done something his more-publicized stablemate hasn't in the United States.

The 6-year-old has a Grade I victory, having led every step of the way at 9-1 in winning the Hollywood Gold Cup last June 30.

Bred in Brazil, like Siphon, Sandpit would be the biggest surprise for Team Mandella were he to win Sunday, but only because he is being asked to do something different, not for lack of credentials.

For the first time in about four years, the 8-year-old will race on dirt. In his only other experience on the surface, he won a 1 1/2-mile race in South America.

Since then, Sandpit has kept busy on the turf, winning 12 of 31 races and earning slightly more than $2.4 million.

Mandella's strong hand is reminiscent of the days when Charlie Whittingham started more than one horse in Santa Anita's most famous race.

Once, he started four in the Big 'Cap, but with no success. The best he could manage in that 1976 race was a seventh by Top Command.

Seven times, however, Whittingham started three and he won in three of those years, running 1-2 in 1973 with Cougar II and Kennedy Road, and again in 1985 with Lord At War and Greinton.

There were also 15 occasions when Whittingham ran a pair, most recently in 1993, when Sir Beaufort gave him his ninth win in the Handicap.

None of Whittingham's horses will be in the starting gate on Sunday, and the Mandella trio might be the deepest group from one barn in the history of the race. Gentlemen, Siphon and Sandpit have won 33 of 64 starts and have earnings of $4,709,518.

And Mandella, 46, is in position to win his first Big 'Cap.

He has run seven horses in the Santa Anita Handicap, and the closest he came to victory was 1995, when Best Pal, at 7, fell a head short of catching Urgent Request.

"It was a heartbreaker," Mandella said. "It was a spectacular race for [Best Pal]. He was a little bit old by then, but he ran a hell of a race. He came flying the last part, and he would have had [Urgent Request] in another step."

Best Pal was a fan favorite and Gentlemen, owned by Hollywood Park Chairman and Chief Executive Officer R.D. Hubbard and Argentine businessmen Giberto Montagna, Aldo Soprano and Juan Jose Varsi, is starting to attract a following of his own.

Whether he was going to run Sunday was the big question last week, and his presence makes this one of the most anticipated Big 'Caps in recent years.

The running style he employs seems certain to be different from the way he ran in the Native Diver and San Antonio. He led throughout in those races, but Siphon will probably have the lead Sunday and Gentlemen will come from off the pace.

Those who don't think he can do so may be in for a surprise. He once rallied from fifth to win a race on turf in Argentina, and he relaxed just off the lead in the Citation Handicap in November at Hollywood Park.

Jockey Gary Stevens was impressed with how Gentlemen worked in company with King Of Swing, a talented 3-year-old, last week.

"He was very peaceful and relaxed, a perfect 'gentlemen,' " Stevens said. "We did exactly what Richard wanted us to do. We broke off together entering the backstretch, and immediately I took back and put [Gentlemen] behind [King Of Swing]."

A winner of five of seven starts since the beginning of 1996, Siphon has won four races around two turns in America and he has led all the way in each, so there is no secret about his strategy.

About 10 days after finishing a distant third in the Pacific Classic after battling through some rapid splits, Siphon tore a muscle above his right knee during a routine gallop.

At first, Mandella feared the knee was broken, but a scan revealed the tear and Siphon was away from the races until Jan. 26.

He returned in style, beating Elmhurst by a deceptively easy half-length in 1:40 4/5 for the 1 1/16 miles.

"I thought he ran fantastic, because he wasn't as tight as he could have been," Mandella said. "I had left a little room for improvement. For this race, I think he's just as good as he was going into the Gold Cup last year."

How Sandpit will do is an intriguing question, but the chestnut has always trained well on the main track. Earlier this month, he worked six furlongs in 1:10 4/5 at Hollywood Park.

"It doesn't interfere with any turf races we were thinking about, and it opens some other doors for him if he runs well," Mandella said. "All three horses are doing great. I don't think any one of them could be doing any better."

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