HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Richard Mandella has done this before.
In the Pacific Classic two years ago at Del Mar, he faced a horse with an extended win streak trained by Bill Mott. The horse was Cigar. Mandella saddled Dare And Go, and Cigar's 16-race win streak was history.
Today, in the Arkansas Derby here at Oaklawn Park, Mandella again faces a horse with an extended win streak trained by Mott. The horse is Favorite Trick. Mandella saddles Quake, and Favorite Trick's nine-race win streak is at risk.
Does Mandella, one of the top trainers on the West Coast, enjoy his underdog status with Mott, one of the top trainers in the East?
"In my 24 years of training," Mandella said, smiling, "I've found it's much better to have the favorite."
And the favorite here is Favorite Trick, last year's Horse of the Year who is 4-5 in the morning line. Quake, a lightly raced colt from California, is second choice at 3-1.
In a teleconference call earlier this week involving trainers with Derby candidates, Bob Baffert, with Indian Charlie and Real Quiet, told Mott: "Watch out for Quake. He could be the upsetter."
Others, including top California handicapper Jeff Siegel, like Quake, too -- if not to knock off Favorite Trick today at 1 1/8 miles, at least to challenge him and then to improve at 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby.
Mandella appreciates the encouraging words. But first, he said, he must see Quake perform in the Arkansas Derby.
"This is a test -- a big test," Mandella said. "We're here to see how he runs against this group. If he runs well, we'll get Derby fever. If he doesn't, we'll get allowance fever."
The Arkansas Derby is one of three races today capable of inflicting the condition known as Kentucky Derby fever. The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct are the other two.
Although Derby fever usually means a near-obsession with running a horse in the Kentucky Derby, it seems this week to have prompted the trainer of a once-prominent Derby contender to criticize the potential Derby favorite.
Shug McGaughey, preparing Coronado's Quest for the Wood Memorial, told a New York turf writer that Coronado's Quest, if not beset by behavioral problems, "could pull a wagon and beat Lil's Lad."
Lil's Lad, the 1-2 pre-race favorite in the Blue Grass Stakes, has not lost a race to the finish line this year. In the Florida Derby, he was placed second for bumping Cape Town, but he passed under the wire first just as he had in three earlier races in Florida. If the Kentucky Derby were run today, he might be the favorite -- but not with McGaughey.
"Lil's Lad is no wonder horse," McGaughey told the New York Post. "If he's 2-5 [in the Blue Grass], I'd like to be betting against him. Lil's Lad will get beat a lot more often than he wins."
But it is Lil's Lad, not Coronado's Quest, who is one race from the Kentucky Derby. Asked whether Coronado's Quest, if he behaves perfectly and runs gloriously in the Wood, would race in the Kentucky Derby, McGaughey said: "He ain't going to the Derby."
The colt's owner, Stuart S. Janney III, who lives in Butler, concurred. But still, Janney said, Coronado's Quest has behaved perfectly since undergoing surgery in Florida to correct a breathing problem.
"He's a much happier horse," Janney said. "I'm looking for a terrific performance in the Wood."
Coronado's Quest faces no horse who at this point could be called a top Derby contender. But Lil's Lad faces two: Cape Town and Halory Hunter. They face the formidable task of chasing a speed horse alone on the lead.
In the Arkansas Derby, Favorite Trick tackles 1 1/8 miles for the first time. A son of the sprinter Phone Trick (whom, coincidentally, Mandella trained), Favorite Trick must overcome doubts about his stamina. Even Mott, who began training Favorite Trick three months ago, had questions.
"I think I'm getting over that," Mott said. "After being around the horse, watching him train, and then getting that win with him [seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park], I decided it was time to start thinking Kentucky Derby."
Mandella acknowledged that Favorite Trick, like Cigar in the 1996 Pacific Classic, is the horse to be beat. A strapping, late-blooming son of Capote, Quake may be his greatest threat.
Quake didn't race at 2 because he was so green, Mandella said. And he's raced only four times this year, finishing second to Indian Charlie, subsequent winner of the Santa Anita Derby, in a mile race a month ago at Santa Anita Park.
"I got the feeling that with another eighth of a mile he'd have been in the hunt," Mandella said. "I think he lost on distance. Here, we've found the distance. Now we'll see how he likes Favorite Trick."
Pub Date: 4/11/98