Pleasant Memories Keep Mandella Looking Forward

Richard Mandella | Horsephotos

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The mantle passes. Now that he is himself such a model for young Californian trainers, it is touching to think of Richard Mandella back in the days when he, too, would look up to those who set the standards in the previous generation.

“I remember sitting in my box seat, with my horse going to the post, and I could feel my heartbeat all the way through my body,” he recalls. “People used to think I was taking it well, but I wasn't inside. I could feel the pounding. And I remember looking down the row of box seats, and seeing Charlie Whittingham. And win or lose, whatever happened, he seemed to handle it so well. And I used to say to myself: 'I hope when I grow up, I can be like that.'”

He pauses. “And I've never quite got there,” he adds wryly. “I still get pretty nervous.”

After Whittingham's death, in 1999, Mandella said he was moved when Santa Anita offered him the barn that had previously housed Sunday Silence, Ferdinand and so many other champions. So for all the self-deprecation and apparent mildness of his bearing, Mandella experienced much excitement and gratification when United (Giant's Causeway) scrambled home in the Grade II turf race named for Whittingham soon after the delayed start of the current meet.

“I've always felt it a great honor to be here,” he says of Barn 4. “Charlie Whittingham was a mentor to everybody, a real gentleman, who would talk to any trainer–whether you were young and up-and-coming or older and established. He just had that presence. We had a nice friendship all along, I think we shared some values. And, as for every other trainer on the backside, we all admired him and wanted to be like him. When he passed, they changed the name of that race and I've been second a few times. In fact, this horse was second the year before. I guess I felt a little jinxed, that I couldn't win it. So it was nice to get it done.”

Mandella's literal succession, at the barn, was sealed in terms of professional accomplishment two years later by induction into the Hall of Fame; and then, in 2003, by four Breeders' Cup winners on his home track–out of a program then still only comprising eight prizes in all. The day was crowned in the Breeders' Cup Classic itself by Pleasantly Perfect, whose death in Turkey last week naturally stirred many memories.

True, Mandella's pulse had been rather more temperate than normal as Pleasantly Perfect went to post that day: he was certain that he had used up all his luck already, with two juvenile winners and a dead-heat in the Turf.

“I thought there was no way he could overcome all that,” he says. “But he was a very special horse. He was a standout, physically, with great conformation. And he had a great pedigree: by Pleasant Colony out of a 2-year-old stakes winner [Regal State (Affirmed), G1 Prix Morny]. With that precocity as well, it was pretty nice mixture. It was disappointing, to me, that the breeders kind of gave up on him a little early. I think he added a lot of distance and quality to the breed.”

As a grandson of His Majesty, Pleasantly Perfect was one of the last hopes of the Ribot line. (What a shame Whitmore is a gelding!) But while this sire line has been associated (despite Hoist The Flag) with the kind of scale and stamina that requires rather too much patience of the feckless commercial market, breeders may have been deceived in the case of Pleasantly Perfect. For in making a single, disastrous start at three and only breaking his maiden at four, he was dealing with a very specific problem.

“The first day we galloped him, we were disappointed in what seemed to be his fitness,” Mandella explains. “He came back extremely tired and out of wind. My vet checked him and the next day we took his pulse before and after he went out to train, and his heart rate actually went down [in between]. We sent him down to the hospital where they scanned his heart and, sure enough, there was an inflammation and fluid in the sac.”

They gave him time, tried him, gave him more time.

“It turned out to be probably a good year before he got over it,” Mandella recalls. “And then, when he came back, he really looked the part–and trained like it.”

But while that challenge was as rare as the ultimate rewards, it seems unlikely that Pleasantly Perfect would have profited from equal perseverance in many other hands. For getting a horse to thrive with maturity has always been a stock-in-trade for Mandella. The Tin Man (Affirmed) won a Grade I as a 9-year-old; Sandpit (Brz) (Baynoun {Ire}) had serial podiums as the same level at eight; while Beholder (Henny Hughes) famously won Grade I prizes at two, three, four, five and six.

Such deeds remind us that many horses are retired to stud when barely adolescent. But while some pedigrees and physiques may put a premium on patience, Mandella suspects that any and all Thoroughbreds would reward the laying of proper foundations.

“If they're not used too hard, when young, I think you have a better older horse,” he says. “Some of these horses did have problems they had to put behind them. But I think horses in general, given the chance to develop, would be better at later ages than we think. It has to do with a few different things. One, they have to be sound enough; second, they have to be healthy enough; and third, they have to happy enough.”

United himself, now five, is the latest case in point. He announced his arrival among the turf elite when all but derailing a Horse of the Year campaign with his 51-1 scare for Bricks And Mortar in a GI Breeders' Cup Turf duel dedicated to their late sire last November. A $300,000 Saratoga yearling (having previously fetched $240,000 as a weanling at Keeneland November), found for LNJ Foxwoods by Solis/Litt, he has won both starts this year–either side of a frustrating trip to Dubai, where the meeting was cancelled at the 11th hour.

With his earnest style, United does look a horse that will just keep going. He proved as much over the longer distance at the Breeders' Cup and, under a well-judged ride from Flavien Prat, held off a cluster of closers in the Whittingham after bounding into the lead into the stretch.

“He just gets better all the time,” Mandella says with enthusiasm. “He's a great big horse and it just took him a while to really get developed. Now he's a big, gorgeous horse and runs like it. Yes, stamina is his game–but I think it has more to do with the way that has he really come full circle, with his education and his growing up into himself. It took time to fill out into his frame, but he has all that now.”

That maturity, mental as well as physical, helped United soak up his pointless excursion halfway round the world. A long way to go, as Mandella remarks, for a paddock school.

“But it didn't faze him at all and he came back in great shape,” the trainer confirms.

While United has been a slow burn, the barn's other headline act on Memorial Day weekend has been outright explosive. Bearing in mind that Mandella began the campaign with a gaping Omaha Beach (War Front)-shaped hole in his team, he says he is grateful to Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms for importing Jolie Olimpica (Brz) (Drosselmeyer); and to John Fulton for drawing her exploits in Brazil to Porter's attention.

South American migrants, of course, have been no less synonymous with Mandella than the older horses already discussed. Other recruits besides Sandpit include Gentlemen (Arg) (Robin Des Bois), Siphon (Brz) (Itajara {Brz}) and Redattore (Brz). Rewiring these animals is always an interesting professional challenge.

“Remember that by the time they've done enough to make you want to buy them, they've already been raced pretty significantly,” Mandella explains. “So you get a look at them–see how they've travelled, what kind of condition they're in–and then give them a bit of a rest. That might be a few weeks, it might be a few months. And then you start them up much like you would a young horse. You teach them lessons, because we have a different style of riding and training here. The worst thing is if they get a bad habit from being new to the environment. With horses, it takes a moment to learn a bad habit and forever to correct it. So you're best off trying for that not to happen.”

As he modestly stresses, none of these attentions count for anything if they can't run already. And this filly can fly. Her workouts had been auspicious but nobody could have anticipated her blowing the doors off the way she did on her local debut, her 1:01 flat in the GIII Las Cienegas S. breaking the record for the 5 1/2 turf furlongs currently in use at Santa Anita. Stretched out to a mile in the GII Buena Vista S., she was run down late by Keeper Ofthe Stars (Midnight Lute), but the shock winner has since reinforced her own merit in the GI Gamely S.

Despite that reverse, cutting back Jolie Olimpica for the GII Monrovia S.–where she produced a virtual replica of her debut, in a time of 1:01.11 (opening splits of 21.40 and 22.08)–was not intended to typecast her. Her biggest win on home soil, remember, was by six lengths over a mile.

“We'd missed a lot of racing, with the virus going round, so she'd become fresh again,” he explains. “There was a good purse for her doing what she'd done already, so I thought it the best way to go. We're looking to stretch her out again now. There aren't any large purses for sprinting [coming up] and we're kind of anxious to try her at a mile or a little farther anyway. She has a race in New York on June 27, the [GI] Just A Game S., but I want to make sure she's back up to par before doing that.”

United is also set to head east for his next start, though connections are yet to choose between options at Keeneland, Belmont and Monmouth.

Though these two early flagbearers for 2020 could hardly be more different, they do share a surface and Border Town (War Front) extends the turf theme as a 4-year-old now really finding his stride. He took five attempts to break his maiden, having started out with Chad Brown on the East Coast, but then followed up in allowance company a couple of weeks ago.

All in all, after a trying year for his home track, Mandella says he's just pleased to be looking forward again. Sure, he would have loved the chance to see what Omaha Beach could do with a clear run, after missing so much of his sophomore season. But he stresses his gratitude for having had him even for as long as he did. And if Mandella hasn't “grown up” to be quite like Whittingham, then that's only because these horses keep him so young.

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