2003: Richard Mandella's Greatest Day
October 25, 2003. Santa Anita Park. The 20th Breeders' Cup. No one knew who would win any of the races on the program that morning, but there would be at least one star on display at the legendary racetrack.
That star was a respected trainer who did something no one in his profession had done before. And it happened in his own backyard.
Before that particular Breeders' Cup, Richard Mandella had already crafted a fine training career. The Southern California native had won scores of races, dozens of stakes, and two years earlier became a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame. His list of accomplishments were impressive, and the resume happened to include a couple of Breeders' Cup wins. But Mandella had no way of possibly knowing what awaited him at Santa Anita on that Saturday in October.
By the time evening rolled around, he would be the subject of a towering feat.
First up for the stable came the Juvenile Fillies, where Mandella saddled the undefeated Halfbridled. The winner of the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and Grade II Oak Leaf Stakes, Halfbridled started from the extreme outside in post fourteen, but she was unfazed by the wide trip she had going into the clubhouse turn. Well within striking distance by the time she straightened on the backstretch, Halfbridled and Julie Krone bided their time before emerging with a clear lead in the final furlong to win the Juvenile Fillies as the favorite. The win was a historical one, for Krone could call herself the first female jockey to win a Breeders' Cup race after the result was made official.
A couple of hours went by before the next Mandella entrant made his way to the track, and he was one of the longer shots in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Just a few weeks earlier, Action This Day broke his maiden on the Santa Anita main track at a mile and a sixteenth, the same distance as the Juvenile. The consensus was Action This Day had no chance in what was a huge class boost, but horse racing can be full of surprises. Despite trailing by double digits after a half-mile, Action This Day and David Flores were beneficiaries of a fast pace. In mere moments, they went from last to mid-pack at the top of the stretch before finding a perfect path on the outside. Full of steam in the stretch, Action This Day shocked the spectators with a win at over 27-1 in a performance filled with bravado. And as an added bonus, Mandella got the exacta with Grade I Del Mar Futurity runner-up Minster Eric getting the place spot.
The Juvenile was followed by the Breeders' Cup Turf at a mile and a half. Two representatives from the Mandella barn were in the starting gate for the longest of the Breeders' Cup races. Johar had been a regular on the circuit going on two years, and in that time collected wins and placings in various graded stakes events. More recently, the son of Gone West was coming off a runner-up effort in the Grade I Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship Stakes at Santa Anita. Joining him was his stablemate The Tin Man, who had been fourth in the Turf a year earlier and finished fourth in the Clement L. Hirsch. Riding Johar was Alex Solis, while Mike Smith piloted The Tin Man.
Both horses were sent off as longshots at more than 14-1. Their odds were as similar as their running styles for the race were different. The Tin Man stayed close to the front before getting the lead with about a half-mile to go. As for Johar, he was strolling along early, but was ready to run well into the far turn. Winning the race meant having to take on defending champion High Chaparral, winner of the prestigious Group I Epsom and Irish Derbies. He launched a strong rally early in the stretch as Falbrav seized the lead from The Tin Man. And behind them came Johar.
He moved into third on the outside of both horses, and he found more power in deep stretch. As the Santa Anita crowd roared in excitement, the top three were side by side for a brief moment. Then two of them got their heads in front. Then they reached the wire in an electrfying photo finish. The two horses were High Chaparral and Johar.
Who won it? Both of them did. It was a dead heat, and Mandella had his third winner on the day. He also had half of the Turf superfecta, for The Tin Man held on for fourth place. It was already a banner day for the Hall of Fame conditioner, but amazingly, he was not done.
The main event was of course the Breeders' Cup Classic, and Mandella had one horse in the race. Pleasantly Perfect had come off a layoff to win Santa Anita's Grade II Goodwood Handicap in early October, and like some of his stablemates, was seen as a longshot to take the biggest race of the day. Medaglia d'Oro took the most win bets as he attempted to win the race after finishing second the previous year. He was in contention for much of the ten furlongs, battling with Congaree around the track. And Pleasantly Perfect? He and Alex Solis stayed several lengths down before making their move. They were in fourth as straightened for the stretch run, and they were met with a clear path. The two charged forward as Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree continued their match race, and neither of them had anything for the Mandella charge.
Pleasantly Perfect's name could have described the way his stretch run went, for he moved past the leaders as the crowd screamed to win the Classic as Solis celebrated after the wire. Mandella was in the stands sporting what might have been a smile filled with excitement and surprise.
To win one Breeders' Cup race is fantastic. To win two on the same program is amazing. To win three is incredible. But to win four in one day? It is out of this world. It had never happened in Breeders' Cup history, and only Brad Cox has managed to win four Breeders' Cup races in one year, doing so over two days in 2020.
Winning a horse race is tough, but to win a quartet of them in what is a truly international event during one day is something that may never be matched. On those grounds, Mandella could occupy a unique place in racing history by himself for all time.
Ten years earlier in 1993, the Breeders' Cup was at Santa Anita for the second time. The big winner that day was none other than Mandella, who guided Phone Chatter to a Juvenile Fillies win and Kotashaan to victory in the Turf. Little did he know that he would experience an even bigger day at that same track ten years later. And interestingly, Action This Day, Halfbridled and Johar either finished first or second in their respective races during Santa Anita's September 28 program. No one knew it at the time, but that day proved to be a foreshadowing of what was to come in a milestone Breeders' Cup.
Horseplayers who had a Mandella winner on their ticket did well. The average win payout for a $2 ticket for that quartet was was $26.55. Collectively, they paid $106.20, and two of them became Eclipse Award winners. Halfbridled went on to be named the year's Champion Two-Year-Old Filly, while Action This Day was voted Champion Juvenile Colt.
And all of that shows the prowess of Richard Mandella as a trainer. Whether a favorite or a longshot, Mandella can get them ready because he is a master horseman. As prestigious as the Hall of Fame berth was, it could be said the 2003 Breeders' Cup is Mandella's crowning achievement. He saddled winners on dirt and turf, as well as at different distances. It was a virtuoso effort by a first-rate conditioner, and a grand day for one of the Southland's own .
Contrary to the old saying, nice guys can finish first. Just ask Richard Mandella.