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Bill Dwyre

Mandella may be part of Classic decision

September 27, 2008|Bill Dwyre

When it comes to discussions of horse racing's seminal moment of the year, Big Brown vs. Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Richard Mandella is a man in the middle.

Mandella will be at Santa Anita today, partly as an observer, as the track puts on six Grade I races, with a total payout of $1.9 million. That is the first time six Grade I's have been run on the same track on the same day.

For the Hall-of-Fame trainer, his view will be from at least five sides:

That of fan: "Anybody who knows anything about horse racing wants to see this," he says. "This really is a big deal. It will be very unfortunate if it doesn't come together."

That of official: "I am a director of Oak Tree, and Oak Tree is a racing group that leases Santa Anita for a meeting this time every year. I want to make that clear. If Big Brown and Curlin run in the Breeders' Cup [at the end of the Oak Tree meeting], it will be a great thing for Oak Tree."

That of racing legend, the only person ever to train four Breeders' Cup winners on one day. That was 2003, the last time the Breeders' Cup was in Southern California and at Santa Anita. Mandella saddled winners Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies, Action This Day in the Juvenile, Johar in the Turf and Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic. His horses, including two others who were second and fourth, earned $4,564,040.

"I had a good day," the understated Mandella says.

He also says, "I had eight horses in that day. But when Halfbridled won, with Julie Krone riding her like a maestro, it was a huge relief.

"Then, things just got really busy."

Alex Solis rode Johar to a rare dead-heat finish and all that left for Mandella was Pleasantly Perfect, with Solis aboard again.

"I remember thinking that there's just no way this horse can win, too, even though he was a great horse," Mandella says. "That would just be too much."

But win he did, Mandella arriving just in time to saddle him. And now, his day is the gold standard for trainers in the richest of racing's many rich days, the Breeders' Cup.

Which makes his fourth role in all this even more interesting.

That of advisor to the Curlin camp.

Curlin is the 4-year-old who won last year's Preakness, finished in the money in the other two Triple Crown races, won the $5-million Dubai Cup and the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic last year, and has a chance to become the top-winning thoroughbred of all time, surpassing Cigar's $9.9 million in purses.

That chance, dramatically for racing, also comes today, a continent away, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in New York.

For Santa Anita, Oak Tree, the Breeders' Cup and racing in general, there is more at stake than a money record.

A victory by Curlin, or perhaps even a strong showing with a healthy recovery, would likely prompt Curlin's connections, led by majority owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen, to pack up Curlin for the West Coast and the ultimate showdown -- the Breeders' Cup Classic against Big Brown.

Big Brown is this year's Curlin. He was the shining star of the Triple Crown series, with just that one strange moment when he was pulled up while trailing badly on the last turn of the Belmont. Big Brown's connections, led by trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., have already committed to coming to the Classic.

So Curlin, in today's Jockey Club Gold Cup, is the last piece of the puzzle. That may be slightly more complicated than just win and come. And that's where Mandella plays a role.

He trains a horse for Jackson, an older colt named Peace Chant. But with the veteran Mandella's eyes and ears on site -- especially with the Oak Tree meeting taking place on yet another new version of a synthetic surface that presents many unknowns -- Jackson has indicated he will use Mandella as a sounding board in the decision.

"He has called and asked," Mandella says. "I don't want to make it seem like what I say will be real important, but he has asked that I watch."

So what happens today on two coasts will factor into what will take place on the West Coast on Oct. 25.

Mandella will report on breakdowns on track, or horses being pulled up lame. That would hint at a problem with the synthetic surface, and it's important because Asmussen is not a big fan of synthetics. Also, Mandella will watch carefully for front-running bias, meaning a surface that slows things down so that horses can't get enough of a grip on the track to get past the leader.

"As of today," Mandella said after Wednesday's opener, "it looks like this track favors the best horse, period."

So, with his various roles, perceived biases and admitted conflicts of interest, what will Mandella tell Jackson, when asked?

"I'll just tell him the truth," Mandella says.

Which brings up Mandella's other role in all this, a sad truth:

That of non-participant: On Breeders' Cup weekend, the man who entered eight and won with four in 2003, will saddle none.

"I just haven't got the horses at the moment," Mandella says. "That's how it goes in racing."

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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ON THE WEB

Zenyatta, an unbeaten 4-year-old filly, will be the star attraction today as six Grade I races are run at Santa Anita.

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