I don’t remember who it was – maybe Jack Paar or Dick Cavett – who said that the best interviews are really conversations. But there is a fine line.
In horse racing nowadays Richard Mandella exemplifies that. An interview with him can be challenging. A conversation with him? That’s easy.
He is a Hall of Fame trainer who is sending the talented but star-crossed colt Omaha Beach into two more races. First there is Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on the weather-delayed opening day at Santa Anita. Then there is next month’s $3 million Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park. Then it is off to millions of dollars at stud for Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky.
In the course of a 15-minute telephone conversation Monday evening for the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, I asked Mandella about the Pegasus – and the news that the likely 3-year-old champion Maximum Security will not be there. It means that two of the top colts from the 2016 foal crop will never meet on the racetrack.
Mandella’s reaction? “Well, I’m sure there’ll be good ones there, so we’ll just hope to get ourselves there in good shape.”
That was it.
One thing I have learned in interviewing, ... er, ... conversing with Mandella is that he does not waste time embellishing answers with unnecessary small talk. But he also has a dry, playful sense of humor. Sometimes his short answers are a test to see if he is the only one in on a clever joke.
But he can also be expansive when he has something to say. Like when I pressed him about Omaha Beach’s runner-up finish as the even-money favorite last month at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
“Maybe I was worried about having him dropping back to a sprint to sharpen him up,” Mandella said, referring to the previous month’s victory in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship after a six-month layoff to deal with a throat problem and a virus. “Maybe I got a little too easy on him, thinking about calming him down to those two turns. I might have taken a little of the starch out of him, because he was a little flat that day. I blame myself before I blame him.”
If morning workouts this month are any indication, Omaha Beach (4-5 morning line) has found his starch again preparing for this weekend’s cutback to seven furlongs on Santa Anita’s main track. The two-time Grade 1 winner sired by War Front fired three bullets on that same course, including Sunday’s 34.0-second work over three furlongs. Yes. 34.0.
“We didn’t intend to go so fast,” Mandella said. “But it was a very busy track after the break, and horses broke off working by themselves. He was behind them, and he just had to catch them.”
Starting with jockey Mike Smith from the outside post, Omaha Beach may have to do that again in Saturday’s 6 p.m. EST feature. Even though there are only four other 3-year-olds in the race, trainer Bob Baffert’s pace-setting allowance winner Much Better (12-1) figures to bolt from his rail post with blinkers added. And with Javier Castellano getting the ride, trainer Chad Brown ships in last year’s Grade 1 Champagne Stakes winner Complexity (5-2) to chase the pace in only his third start since a 10th-place finish in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
“I’m concerned about (Complexity) because he’s proven to be a top-class horse,” Mandella said. “Chad Brown has proven how good he is. He wouldn’t be bringing him here if he didn’t have a pretty strong feeling.”
Baffert fills out the field with this year’s Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster (3-1) as well as Manny Wah (8-1), his new arrival from Wayne Catalano’s barn. All told his three horses are 0-for-5 at seven furlongs with two seconds and two thirds.
“I’d be OK with them going seven-eighths if Omaha Beach wasn’t in there,” Baffert said. “A horse that looks good, too, is Complexity.”
“Roadster again has proven himself to be a very good horse,” Mandella said, who then made reference to one of those little jokes that he dropped into the conversation a little earlier. “When I said you can’t trust Baffert, he pulls off things that you don’t imagine.”
(Bettors may translate that to mean “the other Baffert,” the horse with the longer odds getting the victory at the expense of shorter-priced stable mates.)
Oh, back to that 34.0-second workout by Omaha Beach. Did that really happen on the same track that some trainers – notably Shug McGaughey – complained about being too soft and deep during the Breeders’ Cup?
“They did a lot of maintenance on it about two weeks ago,” Mandella said. “It’s had a lot more life than it has been. Horses are working a little bit faster, handling it a little better. I have had no complaints over the track at all, even back at the Breeders’ Cup. It was a little slower, but the horses are staying sound. So long as that happens, that’s the most important thing.”
That is the elephant that will not leave the room at Santa Anita, where 37 racehorses died from injuries at the track since this time last year. With 2020 at hand, one might think that anyone and everyone associated with the game in southern California cannot wait to smash 2019 beneath that dropping ball in Times Square.
“You could look at it that way,” Mandella said. “It seems like there has been a black cloud over us for quite a while. But there’s been a lot of corrections since then. Everybody has gotten very careful and is doing everything we can to keep things from happening wrong. If you look at it in general, it’s been pretty successful.”
If nothing else, Mandella hopes that 2019 will end on a high note in the winner’s circle Saturday with Omaha Beach – even if it is in a race with only four other horses.
“I accept it for what it is,” he said.
Short and sweet.
Racing notes and opinions
With Santa Anita’s traditional Dec. 26 opener pushed back two days because of rain in the forecast, there are three Grade 1 races on the card Saturday. That is when it is expected to be sunny and dry for a second straight day. To wit:
$300,000 American Oaks
1¼ miles (turf), 3-year-old fillies, 4:30 p.m. EST
Giza Goddess (7-2) and So Much Happy (30-1) will bring the early speed. So Much Happy looks outclassed, but Giza Goddess does not. Trained by John Shirreffs, she placed second in the Grade 3 Autumn Miss at Santa Anita in October before finishing an empty eighth in the Grade 1 Matriarch against older rivals this month at Del Mar. The big question is whether she can get the added distance. The deep-closing Lady Prancealot (2-1) comes back from a two-month break after she won the Grade 3 Valley View at Keeneland. During the summer she finished a competitive third to two-time Grade 1 winner Cambier Parc in the Del Mar Oaks. With Joe Bravo riding for Richard Baltas, Lady Prancelot will be my key horse in the American Oaks with Giza Goddess part of my exacta box.
$300,000 La Brea Stakes
7 furlongs (dirt), 3-year-old fillies, 5 p.m. EST
This looks like a valedictory for Bellafina (9-5). She is 4-for-5 at Santa Anita, including a career-best 105 Beyer finishing second to Covfefe in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Her workouts for trainer Simon Callaghan look fine, and having Flavien Prat in the saddle is a huge plus. But Bellafina has not won since the Santa Anita Oaks, losing four consecutive Grade 1s since. She will attract the money, so an upset should yield honest value. Ron Ellis’s lightly raced Grade 2 runner-up First Star (4-1) had two bullet workouts this month and should get a ground-saving trip on the rail. Baffert’s three-time graded-stakes runner-up Mother Mother (6-1) comes back from a seven-month break. It would be foolish to leave Bellafina off, but I will certainly include First Star and Mother Mother on my tickets.
$300,000 Malibu Stakes
7 furlongs (dirt), 3-year-olds, 3 p.m. PST
It is tempting to single Omaha Beach horizontally here. His second-place finish to Spun To Run in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile should do nothing to dissuade bettors. I am not sold on Complexity, and it is hard to figure which of the three Baffert colts will be the most likely to hit the board. The vertical plan here would be to look at the will-pays on the exacta screen and pair Omaha Beach with a long shot. Better yet, maybe I will just sit this one out while watching an excellent horse make his last run at Santa Anita.
The $150,000 Jerome Stakes on New Year’s Day at Aqueduct may be ungraded, but it is the next step on the road to the Kentucky Derby, and it features the favorite in domestic Derby futures. Independence Hall comes back from last month’s 12¼-length victory in the Grade 3 Nashua over the same, one-turn mile as Wednesday’s race. In the futures markets, Independence Hall is favored at 8-1 at William Hill here in Nevada and 12-1 at Bovada off shore.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella talks about Omaha Beach’s bid to win both Saturday’s Malibu Stakes and next month’s Pegasus World Cup. XBTV’s Millie Ball Yakteen, Zoe Cadman and Jeff Siegel are at the roundtable to talk about the best horses, jockeys, trainers and stories of the decade. There is also a handicapping preview of Saturday’s Grade 1 races at Santa Anita. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher, and it is sponsored by Xpressbet.