Charlie Whittingham's participation in the Santa Anita Handicap takes up more than half a page in the race's record book. As far as trainers in the Big 'Cap are concerned, there is Whittingham, then there's the rest of the field.
Whittingham, who started 66 horses in the 33 years he ran in the Big 'Cap, won the race a record nine times, and after him the drop-off is abrupt. Ron McAnally is No. 2 with three wins, and then come four trainers with two wins apiece.
With McAnally starting a longshot, the 20-1 Piensa Sonando, in Saturday's 66th running, it pretty much falls to Richard Mandella to move up from a third-place tie on the list. Borrowing a tactic from Whittingham, who ran multiple entries 23 times, Mandella will try to beat Congaree, the 4-5 morning-line favorite, with Pleasantly Perfect, who is the second choice at 3-1, and Kudos, who is 8-1.
Before his death at 86 in 1999, Whittingham operated out of Barn 4, only a furlong or so from the stable gate at Santa Anita, and that's where Mandella's horses are bedded down.
"It was nice to win two of these and it'd be even better to have three," Mandella said.
The other trainers who've won two are Gary Jones, Willie Molter and Tom Smith, whose second winner was Seabiscuit in his final race in 1940.
As the backstretch expression goes, you can't win if you're not in, and Mandella, who followed Whittingham into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, has been a steady participant since he first sent out a couple of Big 'Cap contenders in 1984. Overall, he has had 18 starters in 10 Big 'Caps, winning with Siphon in 1997 and Malek in 1998. Only four trainers -- Mandella, Whittingham, McAnally and Smith -- have won successive Big 'Caps, and in 1997 Mandella did something that none of the others did. He finished 1-2-3 with Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen in an 11-horse field.
With trainer Bobby Frankel not running Medaglia d'Oro because of a 124-pound weight assignment, seven horses were entered Thursday for the $1-million, 1 1/4-mile race. Congaree, the high weight with 124 pounds, drew the No. 6 post, just inside the Frankel-trained Milwaukee Brew, who will try to join McAnally's John Henry (1981-82) as the only double winner of the race. The first five in the gate, starting at the rail, will be Trompolino, Piensa Sonando, Pleasantly Perfect, Sligo Bay and Kudos. Trompolino is trained by Gary Mandella, who'll be trying to beat his father as well as Congaree.
Pleasantly Perfect will be ridden by Alex Solis, the jockey who clicked with Malek five years ago. Kudos, who was third in last year's Big 'Cap when Eddie Delahoussaye -- since retired -- was aboard, gets a new jockey in Julie Krone, who will become the second woman to ride in the race. The first, Robyn Smith, finished fifth with Austin Mittler in 1977.
Both Pleasantly Perfect and Kudos have had shots, at shorter distances, at beating Congaree, who up to 1 1/8 miles is undefeated in four starts at Santa Anita. Congaree beat Pleasantly Perfect by 3 1/4 lengths as Mandella's horse finished third in the San Antonio Handicap a month ago, and Kudos was second, but beaten by six lengths, to Congaree in the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 4.
Mandella expects both horses to improve off those races. For Pleasantly Perfect, the San Antonio was his first start in four months. Mandella thought he had a peaking horse for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park in October, but Pleasantly Perfect was unable to run because of Illinois rules regarding horses that bleed.
Since the San Antonio, Mandella worked Pleasantly Perfect in company with Omega Code, a 3-year-old trained by Wesley Ward.
"I wanted to simulate race conditions," Mandella said. "I wanted to put some pressure on my horse, so that he'd know he's going to be thrown into the deep end of the pool."
Other races on Saturday's 11-race card are the $400,000 Jimmy Kilroe Mile and the $200,000 San Rafael, a one-mile prep for the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. One of the nine horses entered in the San Rafael is Peace Rules, who has won three times -- but on turf -- at the same distance. ... Jockey Joe Steiner, whose horse clipped the heels of a rival in a race on Wednesday, is listed in stable condition at Arcadia Methodist Hospital. Steiner, 38, suffered facial injuries that included a fractured orbital bone near his right eye, a broken nose and a chipped front tooth. He also broke his right foot.... Ellenhighwater, a 5-year-old mare, was euthanized after a spill in Thursday's last race, but the jockeys involved, Victor Espinoza and Felipe Martinez, were released after being examined and treated at the track's first-aid station.