Dick Mandella had one of those days Sunday that trainers dream about, when they count horses in their sleep. Easy as 1-2-3, Mandella saddled the win, place and show thoroughbreds of the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap, paying off anyone smart enough to bet the trainer across the board.
The winning horse was Siphon, which went wire-to-wire under jockey David Flores, who kept peeking under his armpit for the supposed superhorse Gentlemen, stuck along the rail. Flores hasn't enjoyed himself so much since that 1992 day when he rode six winners at the L.A. County Fair.
Mandella's runner-up turned out to be Sandpit, a horse he knew so little about that it came as stunning news, on race day, that this would be Sandpit's first experience on dirt. Like someone looking for the waters of Casablanca, he had been misinformed.
These fine specimens of South American horseflesh "are better than any one man should have in one barn at the same time," said Mandella, gratefully.
He barely knew which horse to watch with his binoculars. Would the winner be the beautiful Argentine chestnut, Gentlemen, favored to win his sixth consecutive race? Or could the Brazilian beauty whose workouts were so swift, Siphon, sprint to the front, as he usually does, and stay there for 1 1/4 miles?
Then there was his other horse from Brazil, the turf-tested Sandpit, which perhaps would use an advantageous position in the starting gate--right in the middle--to surprise his two South American stable mates, Senor Inside and Senor Outside.
The simple fact was, one way or the other, Mandella had the winner.
"Mr. Mandella sent out three monsters today," said jockey Joe Bravo, who rode Formal Gold to a fairly distant sixth place.
The field was fairly strong--it included the 1996 Belmont Stakes winner, Editor's Note, plus a second Wayne Lukas-trained horse named Marlin that the hunch bettors seemed to like--and was typical of a stakes won by the likes of Seabiscuit, Spectacular Bid and Affirmed.
Formal Gold also looked to be 100% after his long trip to California, which was more than could be said for owner John Murphy, who slipped in the bathroom at his Pasadena hotel, resulting in a nasty bump on the head.
Mandella, however, had the horses.
The one to beat was Gentlemen, but only once in the 60th running of the 'Big Cap has a horse drawn the No. 1 position and won the race. That happened in 1968, when Mr. Right won on a slow track.
Gary Stevens did the best he could--which is considerable--but said he couldn't "risk a suicide pace with Siphon" and actually had to restrain his horse for much of the race. Stevens lost his whip nearing the eighth pole and couldn't even hold off Sandpit for second place.
"Gentlemen didn't run his race," agreed Sandpit's rider, Corey Nakatani.
Mandella, meanwhile, watched with delight while his own favorite was being beaten.
Few days come along like this for a trainer who freely admits, "I'd die to have a [Kentucky] Derby winner."
To saddle the top three horses, in a race Mandella had never won before, that was a thrill.
"Yesterday, I'd have died just to have a Santa Anita Handicap winner," Mandella added, asking not to take that dying part literally.
There was little advice he could give Stevens, being stuck with the rail, which must have discouraged both man and horse. Mandella had few instructions for Flores, either, running out of the No. 10 hole. He said, "David knew how to ride his horse. I didn't have to tell him to be confident. He was already."
As for advising Nakatani, well, what was there to say? Mandella himself had just been informed by Sandpit's owner that the horse had never before run on dirt, contrary to what he previously believed.
No matter. Around the final turn, his South Americans took it away.
Track announcer Trevor Denman called out: "It looks like a 1-2-3 day for trainer Dick Mandella!"
"Yeah, that scared me," Mandella admitted. "I worry about jinxes."
But this was his day. Were these the Olympics, he would have had a gold, a silver and a bronze.