Times have changed since Richard Mandella began training 25 years ago.
“Anybody coming into this game today, I’d advise them not to come in as I did, because the world has changed,” Mandella says with uncharacteristic candor.
Those are strong words coming from Mandella, a mild-mannered man who has devoted his life to the care and training of horses. Mandella is truthful but skirts controversy. At age 50, a grass-roots philosophy and rock-solid values have paid off handsomely for this son of a blacksmith who opened a public stable in 1976 after serving 18 months as an assistant to his beloved mentor, former trainer V.J. (Lefty) Nickerson.
Monday, Aug. 6, will be a landmark day in Mandella’s life. He will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Nickerson and Mandella’s immediate family””wife Randi, son Gary, and daughter Andrea””will attend the ceremony. Bring a hanky.
When it comes to horses, Mandella is a softie. His glistening resume, however, made election to the Hall of Fame a lay-up.
Listed on his dossier are six consecutive wins in $1 million races; one-two-three finishes in the 1997 Santa Anita Handicap; a victory by Dare and Go at 35-1 in the 1996 Pacific Classic, ending Cigar’s 16-race winning streak; four stakes wins on Breeders’ Cup day 1993, including the Turf with Horse of the Year Kotashaan; victories with five consecutive starters at Hollywood Park in 1987 and with his last five starters at Del Mar in 1990; and giving Laffit Pincay Jr. a leg up on Irish Nip for career victory No. 8,834, which broke Bill Shoemaker’s record.
Mandella’s training regimen is simple yet innovative.
“Probably the best way to wrap up my outlook is that I train the horses like I own them myself,” Mandella said. “In other words, I do what I would want done, then try and explain my reasoning to my owners. I’ve always approached my training that way: What would be best for this horse if it were mine? Then I present any options to the owner.”
If Mandella had to solely concentrate on horses, his life would be less complex. As it is, like other contemporary horsemen, he must deal with less tasteful issues.
“Someone starting out as a trainer today better go to school and learn about labor codes and unions and all that crap, because that’s what’s coming,” Mandella said. “The game has changed a lot. I said a couple years ago I thought we were going through a correctional period, but I thought it would be over by now. Racing is like anything in life: economy, world peace; nothing stays the same all the time. Racing is going to have good times and bad and force you to and learn where you went wrong, then come back stronger and do what is supposed to be done.
“I thought I’d see the turn around in racing and the game would be back strong by now. I don’t know that it has, but I truly believe it’s still going through an adjustment phase. We’re looking into home betting, advertising on pants, things like that. But I’m not pessimistic. I’d say the glass is half full. I’d look at it on the positive side.”
Although modesty is one of Mandella’s strong suits, he admits to being among racing’s elite trainers. But that doesn’t prevent him from commiserating with less fortunate peers. “I don’t really know how the little guy can make it nowadays, because of the labor boards and the expenses and the difficulties in training, in finding help,” Mandella said. “There aren’t that many people out there in the world that know how to take care of a horse. We should cultivate them to bring them into racing, not make it unappealing.”
Told that Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron had expressed doubt he would turn to training after his riding days were over, due to the hardships modern-day horsemen face, Mandella said: “And I’m not sure how far my patience will go if they ever unionize and all that. I’m not going to be stupid and say, ”˜Well, if they come in, I’m goin’. But I’m not sure how patient I’d be, because I’m not educated professionally, I don’t have a real education. I’m street-smart and I learned from being battled around, but when it comes to setting up business, I just do the best I can. It’s becoming very frustrating, all this stuff.
“When I grew up, working at the track and working with horses was a labor of love. We weren’t concerned with what little economic benefit we might get from it, because it surely is not something you can make much money from until you get to the highest level. There’s always been a certain amount of people who love working with animals and wouldn’t do anything else, for pay or not.
“That is what racing is supposed to be and that’s kind of the way the world started, people working with animals, playing with animals. They didn’t have cars, they didn’t have tractors, and the people and the animals worked together and played together. I think the world needs to grasp on to that again and savor what’s left and be proud of it.
“It would be good to go back to basic values. Will Rogers said whatever you see good on the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human, or something like that. I’ve always thought that’s true. It’s a credo that gives you basic roots.”