Richard Mandella will celebrate Thanksgiving in Japan.
The only serious challenger to Bobby Frankel for an Eclipse Award as top trainer of 2003, Mandella left yesterday for the Orient where he will saddle Johar in the Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday.
Considering Mandella’s horses earned more than $4.5 million in three hours in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, the Japan Cup is not about money. Even though Johar could win $2,083,333 by capturing the race at about 12 furlongs on grass, Mandella’s primary designs are on an Eclipse Award for Johar.
Since Johar shared first with High Chaparral in the Turf in the first dead-heat in Breeders’ Cup history, a victory in the Japan Cup would garner votes Johar needs to secure the Eclipse Award, one of three that Mandella’s horses could win this year.
Unbeaten Juvenile Fillies winner Halfbridled will be a unanimous winner in the 2-year-old filly division. Juvenile winner Action This Day should win among 2-year-old colts and geldings, but the vote will be splintered.
"I would think Johar would win the Eclipse Award if he wins the Japan Cup," said Mandella, who has compiled countless frequent flier miles to and from the Orient through the years. He finished second in the 1993 Japan Cup with Horse of the Year Kotashaan, when Kent Desormeaux misjudged the finish line and pulled up too soon. Mandella also was there with the likes of Sandpit and Cagney. While he never has won the race, he has enjoyed the visits.
"They pay for everything, including a business class trip over and back for my wife and I, the jockey (Alex Solis) and the horse’s groom," Mandella said of the Japan Racing Association, which even provides a stipend of nearly $3,000 for the groom of the winning horse.
How Johar fares remains to be seen. The 4-year-old son of Gone West has never raced outside of California, let alone the United States. Mandella is not concerned.
"It depends on the individual horse as to how he adjusts," the 53-year-old Hall of Fame trainer said. "We haven’t shipped Johar but the few times I’ve shipped to Japan it’s worked very well. We go in about 10 days ahead and they spend five or six days in quarantine where they train in a very quiet atmosphere. When they come out of quarantine they go right to Tokyo Racecourse and train on the course every day for four or five days. It seems to work out perfect."
Almost as perfect as Johar’s record. The Kentucky-bred owned by The Thoroughbred Corp. has failed to earn a check only once in 15 career starts, with six wins, four seconds, two thirds and earnings of $1,494,496, more than half of which came from his dead heat in the Turf. He never has encountered the crowds and noise he could become entangled with at Tokyo Racecourse. Johar never has run in a race with more than 10 horses, an obstacle he’ll have to overcome in the Japan Cup. And he’ll have to cope with more din than he’s heard in Southern California from the paltry weekend crowds of less than 10,000.
"There’s nothing you can do about it," Mandella said of crowd noise which could effect a horse’s demeanor. "All I know is the horses ship well. It’s a very good facility they have, the horses are relaxed, they rest up and get right to it."
Mandella’s 2-year-old stars Action This day and Halfbridled presently are enjoying a brief respite but he has a game plan.
"Action This Day will start after the first of the year," Mandella said. "I’m not sure which race, but probably in a two-turn race, same with the filly. It could be February, I don’t know. The Las Virgenes (series at Santa Anita) is a possibility for her. Action This Day could return in the Santa Catalina at 11/16 miles on Jan. 17. Right now they’re having a nice little rest and we’ll start them back shortly. They’ve had a couple weeks off and they’re just starting to go to the track again."
THE HOMESTRETCH: On Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first day as Governor of California, I felt like I hit a Pick 3. The registration fee for my car had more than tripled under ousted Gov. Gray Davis, to $550. But man of his word, Schwarzenegger immediately rescinded registration fees by two-thirds. My new cost: $225, a savings of $325. Now if Arnold can fulfill his commitment to lower workers’ comp rates in California, the racing industry will be elated that it bid "hasta la vista, baby," to Davis. Arnold is trying, but he faces an uphill battle. One day after he was sworn in, he convened a special session of the state Legislature to address the high cost of workers’ comp insurance, which has nearly tripled in recent years in California and is more than double the national average. Several horsemen already have departed for greener pastures. "I’m hopeful there’ll be a change for the better," said trainer Darrell Vienna, who has a psychology degree from UCLA and a law degree from Loyola Law School. "I’m very optimistic. Right now I think Schwarzenegger’s got a honeymoon with most of the voters in California. Everybody wants him to do well and I think that crosses party lines. There’s a feeling that he really isn’t a politician in a sense that he brings a certain kind of freshness and an attitude. I’m really rooting for the guy." Schwarzenegger needs all the support he can get, because according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, "new filings by insurers show that many California businesses won’t see decreases in their premiums next year. In fact, they may be lucky to stay even." . . . Here’s an early holiday gift. Miss Coronado, a 2-year-old daughter of Coronado’s Quest trained by Bobby Frankel, looked like a million bucks on the track in her debut at Hollywood Park, but was victim of a ten-cent trip. She lacked room heading for home, then was moved from the rail to four-wide seeking room in deep stretch. She finished third by about a length. Bet with confidence next out . . . Now that Ohio State has lost to Michigan, I guess the Buckeyes deserve to be No. 1 in the BCS poll.