In a career that really began to go places with a horse called Bad n’ Big, it has usually been about very good and not so big for Richard Mandella. As the top trainers steadily increased their numbers well into three-figure territory, Mandella made the decision to cut back on his horses, cultivating a much smaller crop but still bringing in a rich harvest.
Perhaps the seeds of that philosophy were sown when the young Richard Mandella worked alongside his blacksmith father Gene in southern California, forgoing a conventional education for one majoring in horses, for which he receives a lifetime ‘A’ but draws a minor demerit in the field of worldliness. He admits that he spent his days in the schoolroom resting from all the early mornings and late nights breaking-in horses and training them, and that left an impression that sustains to this day.
“What a young person needs to realise is that if he ever has success, he’d better have a little education to work with the success, and I lacked that,” he told Ed Gray for the Paulick Report. “I could feel it as I got too big. I could never feel comfortable once I got over that 65 number, it was more than I could take in at one time.”
Small is beautiful, and the beauty of Mandella’s approach over time has been his ability to treat his horses as individuals, and tailor their progress to their own internal rhythms rather than making them fit into a more impersonal landscape. After leaving the school that he was never really present at anyway, he spent a year in New York as assistant to the colourful Lefty Nickerson, then worked a couple of seasons as a private trainer in Texas, before finishing his journey back west, back home, by setting up his own stable in 1976. Two years later, Bad n’ Big hit the right note in the Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar and Richard Mandella was on his way. In the mid-1990s, his career blossomed dramatically when he began to bring in horses from South America, top-quality horses from the south who had already done enough for one career, but who had their brilliance and longevity extended by Mandella’s bespoke arts of the backstretch.
There was Sandpit, still hitting the board in Grade 1s at the age of eight, Santa Anita
Handicap winner Siphon, and Gentlemen, winner of the Pacific Classic and Hollywood Gold Cup. Their performances hallmarked Mandella’s careful curation of his horses, a methodology that put the horse’s needs first rather than the constant pursuit of objectives. “I might try new things, but pretty soon I throw them out and go back to what I was doing before. The basics are the most important things. I learned them from my father,” the resolutely old-school Mandella once declared.
Naturally his talents attracted the Hall of Fame committee, and Richard Mandella was inducted into that august fraternity in 2001, a great milestone of recognition in the career of any trainer. Yet the judgement of the jury of one’s peers is but one thing, and two years later Mandella brought his talent to the widest possible audience when producing arguably the greatest one-day performance in the history of the sport.
In those not-so-olden days the Breeders’ Cup staged only eight races, and it was all the better for it, but let’s not digress. And at the 2003 championships at his home track Santa Anita, Mandella won four of those races, a 50 per cent strike-rate, the most extraordinary feat on racing’s biggest showpiece occasion.
Richard Mandella’s first win
History walked the halls that day. Mandella’s first win came with Halfbridled in the Juvenile
Fillies, ridden by Julie Krone, who became the first female jockey to win at the Breeders’ Cup. That was followed by Action This Day in the Juvenile, and then by Johar in the Turf, whose spine-tingling dead-heat with High Chaparral was the first such outcome in Cup history.
That haul put Richard Mandella level with Wayne Lukas’s record of single-day Cup victories, and in the concluding Classic he went out on his own with surprise winner Pleasantly Perfect, whose path to the top had been paved with pure Mandella.
At two, Pleasantly Perfect had been diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. Mandella gave him the year off, and most of his three-year-old campaign, and when Pleasantly Perfect finally hit the track he began to win Graded stakes and then he never stopped winning them. His roll of honour included the Dubai World Cup, then the most valuable race in the world, ending his trainer’s frustrating run of near-misses in the race.
In 2010, when Richard Mandella hit 60, he cut back even further, reducing his empire to one barn and 40 horses, and as a result the pipeline of winners began to run a little drier. But if he knew he was sacrificing quantity, he never compromised on quality, and what might be considered the twilight of his great career was lit from within by the magnificent filly Beholder, who has an entry in the Breeders’ Cup record books just like her trainer.
She is the only horse with three victories at the Cup in two different races: the 2012 Juvenile Fillies and the 2013 & 2016 Distaff. As he once did with Sandpit, Siphon and the evergreen The Tin Man, Mandella kept Beholder at the top and winning Grade 1s long after most great horses have been retired to stud.
Mandella has won more than 2,200 races and will likely win plenty more, has trained other stars such as Dare And Go, Phone Trick and Kotashaan, but has never won a Triple Crown race. Those races, however, are the reward for hustle, for precocity, for fast results. And that’s not Richard Mandella’s way.
“If they’re not used too hard when young, I think you have a better older horse,” he said. “I think horses in general, given the chance to develop, would be better at later ages than we think, as long as they’re sound enough, healthy enough and happy enough.” He has proved that philosophy over and over again. If racehorses could choose, they’d choose to be trained by Richard Mandella.
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