SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The last time Richard Mandella trained a horse for the Kentucky Derby, he joked about his dismal record in the country's glamour races.
"At this point, I'm desperate," the California-based trainer said. "I've been begging people for Triple Crown lessons, but nobody will give them to me."
The year was 1999. Mandella's horse was Desert Hero. He finished 13th.
Although Mandella is one of Southern California's most respected trainers - sort of the West Coast Bill Mott - he has never won a Triple Crown race. He is 0-for-4 in the Derby, 0-for-1 in the Belmont, and he has never run a horse in the Preakness.
Nor has he trained a horse for the Travers - until now. Tomorrow, when nine thoroughbreds line up for the country's oldest stakes for 3-year-olds, Mandella's Dixie Union will likely be favored.
After drawing post No. 7, the son of Dixieland Band was installed the 5-2 morning-line favorite over the 3-1 Milwaukee Brew and the 7-2 Unshaded. One glance at Dixie Union's record tells you why: He has finished first or second in nine of his 10 races.
His lone blemish is a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Nov. 6 at Gulfstream Park. He had an excuse, a bone chip in his knee.
Two days after the race in southern Florida, he was on a plane to Lexington, Ky., where the noted equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage removed the chip.
"By the middle of November, it was all done," Mandella said yesterday morning as fog enveloped his barn at Saratoga. "We're just lucky to have him back as good as we'd hoped."
Known for his patient handling of horses, Mandella brought Dixie Union back slowly. The initial recovery went so smoothly that Mandella briefly considered aiming Dixie Union for the Triple Crown series. But excessive rain early in the year in California interrupted his training, and the idea was quickly dropped.
"We had a little chance to think about the Derby because he came around so quickly," Mandella said. "But believe me, it did not take a lot to give it up and have me take my time."
After winning four of six races at 2 (including stakes against Anees, Captain Steve, Exchange Rate, Forest Camp and High Yield), Dixie Union competed for the first time as a 3-year-old the day after the Kentucky Derby - in an allowance race at Hollywood Park. He won.
After finishing second in two stakes at Hollywood, Mandella pronounced his colt ready for the big time. He sent Dixie Union East to contest the Grade I $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap three weeks ago at Monmouth Park. He won.
That powerful performance, overcoming trouble entering the backstretch, stamped Dixie Union as perhaps the top 3-year-old in training. His jockey Alex Solis had been forced to steady the colt in traffic, costing him momentum early in the 1 1/8 -mile race.
When Mandella saw that, he said, "I thought, `Ah --, I ain't never going to have a good 3-year-old.' "
But when Solis steered Dixie Union into the clear for the stretch drive, he devoured horses ahead of him for an impressive three-quarters-length victory over Captain Steve.
Mandella said he believes the additional eighth of a mile of the Travers will pose no problem for Dixie Union. If not, the nearly black colt with the white blaze could enter the sweepstakes for the Eclipse Award as outstanding 3-year-old male.
Fusaichi Pegasus, the Kentucky Derby winner, has not raced since finishing second in the Preakness. Red Bullet, the Preakness winner, is out for the year with a possible slight fracture of the cannon bone in his left front leg. And Commendable, the Belmont winner, has finished fourth and eighth in two races since.
Asked about the topsy-turvy state of the 3-year-old division, Mandella said: "I have enough trouble training my own horse. I don't want to get into that."
But if Dixie Union strings together back-to-back Grade I victories by winning the Haskell and Travers, he will accomplish something no other 3-year-old colt has done this year.
"I guess if he does that," Mandella said finally, "he's going to look pretty good."
(Travers field, 10D)