Small fields, big races baffle ‘Million Dollar’ Mandella

Aug 19, 2003 5:28 AM

Richard Mandella has had dozens of horses in million dollar races and been on both ends of the stick, losing his share, but winning nine. His most astonishing victory came in the 1996 Pacific Classic, when 39-1 shot Dare And Go ended 1-10 favorite Cigar’s winning streak at 16.

Mandella, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001, goes for another upset Sunday when he saddles Jerry and Ann Moss’ 7-year-old gelding Kudos against perhaps as few as four rivals in the 13th edition of the Pacific Classic, a mile and a quarter test for 3-year-olds and up at Del Mar.

Kudos won’t be close to 39-1, but The Californian winner will be an outsider in the race if fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel sends out Medaglia d’Oro and Milwaukee Brew, and Hall of Fame cohort Ron McAnally runs the undefeated Argentinian, Candy Ride.

"Kudos is doing real good and he always gives it a good try," said Mandella, the Million Dollar Fella. "Pace always helps this horse, but if Medaglia d’Oro is the only speed, there’s not much I can do about it. They didn’t give us much chance with Dare And Go, but you can’t win if you ain’t in."

That brings into focus a puzzling question: with a million bucks on the line, why are there five-horse fields? There was a four-horse field in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in 1996, when Malek stunned the world and won for Mandella, while stablemate Gentlemen finished last as the 1-20 favorite.

"I don’t understand it," said Mandella, the 53-year-old son of a blacksmith and a trainer in California for nearly three decades. "I think the game’s become a little too sophisticated with numbers and speed sheets. Horsemen start to out figure themselves and they’re not willing to take a chance like they used to. In the old days horses used to win for a big claiming price and a trainer would jump up (into a stakes race) and take a chance. Those old class claimers would go through a couple of conditions and a trainer or an owner would give it a shot.

"But people are getting very conservative anymore and I don’t understand it. For a million dollars, they should take a chance sometimes."

Generations ago, opportunities to win good money were limited. That’s why a horse like the rekindled Seabiscuit traveled 8,000 miles across country in the late 1930s taking on all comers, including the regal Triple Crown champion War Admiral in a fabled match race in 1938.

But Mandella isn’t necessarily buying that axiom.

"If you look back, the big fields were mostly locals," he said. "There wasn’t a lot of horses that ever shipped out to make those races. Nowadays, everybody’s worried about their percentages of wins and in-the-money, to the point that they’re afraid to reach out and take a chance once in a while. That’s why I think $1 million stakes races are drawing short fields. More often than not, when horses do ship these days, for some reason they don’t seem to come West very often. More of us go East than they come West. True, there are big races everywhere around the country and little reason to ship like in the old days, but still . . . "

Like nearly everyone in racing, Mandella has seen the movie "Seabiscuit." He liked it so much he’s gone back for more.

"I saw it my second time already and I loved it," Mandella said. "I’m going to see it again. The first time I saw it, like most horse people, I was pretty guarded of our industry. I went worrying what it was going to look like. But it’s a fantastic movie. I think it’s great."

Now if a million bucks could draw more than a five-horse field . . .

THE HOMESTRETCH: I congratulated Gary Stevens on his natural performance as George Woolf in the movie "Seabiscuit" when we crossed paths at Del Mar a few weeks ago. He was genuinely humble as he thanked me. On Saturday at Arlington Park, he was fortunate to escape serious injury when his mount, Storming Home, who crossed the wire first in the Arlington Million, was DQ’d for veering out just past the wire, forcing Stevens to bail out. Stevens was hit by trailing horses. That’s how close racing is to being here today, gone tomorrow . . . Frankel, en route to his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award as top trainer and his fifth overall, could have participants in every Breeders’ Cup race except the 2-year-old events. One from his monster barn that may not make the Breeders’ Cup is Swale Stakes winner Midas Eyes, currently sidelined with a foot injury. But that still leaves Medaglia d’Oro, Empire Maker, Peace Rules and Milwaukee Brew (Classic), Sightsteek, Spoken Fur and You (Distaff), Denon (Turf), Tates Creek, Heat Haze, Sea of Showers, Zenda and Megahertz (Filly & Mare Turf) and Aldebaran (Sprint). Peace Rules and Aldebaran also are candidates for the Mile. Frankel already has 18 Grade I stakes wins this year, with earnings approaching $14 million. The record of 22 Grade I wins set by D. Wayne Lukas in 1987 and the annual earnings mark of $17,842,358, also held by Lukas (1988), are well within Frankel’s grasp.