Gary Mandella wouldn’t be the youngest trainer to saddle a Kentucky Derby winner if Man Among Men wins the 129th Run for the Roses on May 3.
That distinction belongs to James Rowe Sr., who was 24 when he sent out Hindoo to win the seventh Derby in 1881.
Mandella is 31. If the man and his horse get to the Derby, it would not only be a thrill for Gary, but for his father, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.
Gary is mature beyond his years. Always has been, even in his late teens, when he was learning the ropes at his father’s barn. Perhaps it’s in his genes, because Richard, 52, is known for his patience and success with thoroughbreds.
Whatever the reason, Gary is not caught up in Derby fever with his promising 3-year-old colt, Man Among Men, who went from turf to dirt in upsetting 2-5 favorite Empire Maker in the Sham Stakes at 11/8 miles on Feb. 7.
Immediately after that one-length victory, Mandella said he would consider one of three races for the Kentucky-bred chestnut’s next start: the El Camino Real Derby on March 8; the Louisiana Derby on March 9; or the San Felipe Stakes on March 16.
But Mandella has since drawn a line through the first two races for the son of Gentlemen, the multiple stakes winner who was trained by his father.
"I’ve ruled out running him the weekend of the eighth and the ninth," said Mandella, who turned 31 on Feb. 14. "I’m definitely not going to run him back that quick and I’m not going to ship him out of town. If he runs before the Santa Anita Derby (on April 5), it will be in the San Felipe, and I may not even do that, because I’m not going to train him through wet tracks to make a race that only leaves me 20 days for the race I really want to win anyway (the Santa Anita Derby).
"So if the weather doesn’t ÂÃ‚Âallow me to make the San Felipe, I’ll just train him up to the Santa Anita Derby. I’d like to take a real good shot at that, because if he doesn’t run good there, then he can’t go on to anything else. If I train him through a bunch of crappy race tracks to make sure I get my three Derby preps in, it doesn’t make any sense.
"This horse proved in the Sham he can run very, very well off a 60-day layoff (Man Among Men hadn’t run since finishing fourth in the Generous Stakes on the grass last Nov. 30), so if the weather doesn’t allow me to do it the way I want, I’ll just train him up to the Santa Anita Derby. Then I’ve still got four weeks to the Kentucky Derby.
"That’s the other thing I’ve made up my mind about: he won’t run in any of those three-week-to-Louisville preps. I want to give him as much time between as I can. He runs his best races that way."
Richard, meanwhile, hasn’t come close in four Derby tries. His best finish was a fifth with Soul of the Matter in 1994. His top prospect this year, Listen Indy, is hors de combat, so Richard probably won’t run a horse in the Derby. That doesn’t mean he won’t be doing some serious rooting for his son. Paternal instinct dictates that he’d rather see his son win America’s most famous race than himself, anyway.
"Absolutely," Richard said. "Gary’s always been a pretty serious guy, always a gentlemen. He has a great mother (Randi). That’s where most of his solid foundation comes from. All I did was not screw it up.
"My wife devotes her life to raising the kids. Me, I’m a horse trainer. What can I do? I don’t work (put in the hours) like I used to, but when poor Gary was little, he hardly knew who I was."
Times have changed. On both sides.
THE HOMESTRETCH: Johnny Longden, who died on his birthday, Feb. 14, at age 96, had been in deteriorating health since suffering a stroke last August. It was reported by friends who visited him in his final days that the Hall of Fame rider weighed just 55 pounds near the end. One of those friends was former jockey Larry Gilligan, who was at Longden’s Banning, California, home about a week before he died. "He was only as big as this," said Gilligan, forming a "C" with his thumb and index finger. But Gilligan remembered Longden in his heydey. "He weighed 115 pounds then," Gilligan said of the man they called "The Pumper," "but his calves were so large and muscular, he had to cut slits in the back of his boots at the top to get them on." Longden is the only man to both ride and train a Kentucky Derby winner. He piloted Count Fleet to the Triple Crown in 1943, and saddled Majestic Prince to win the Derby and the Preakness in 1969. But his most famous moment came in 1966 when before 60,792 fans on track at Santa Anita, he rode George Royal to a stirring nose victory in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap. It was the last ride of his career, during which he rode 6,032 winners. Former riding great Ray York remembered his first encounter with Longden. "In 1949, when I came from the Fairs and went to Bay Meadows, I bothered Johnny in a race when we were leaving the gate. He came over to me in the jocks’ room after the race, and said, ”˜Now son, when you leave the gate, have a little more hold of them horses. Besides that, you bothered me, and I bet my money.’"