Haskell and History a Big Part of Mandella’s Life

Dick Mandella has won two Haskell Stakes 23 years apart and both experiences were totally different. This story is not just about Haskell winner Geaux Rocket Ride, it is also a look back more than two decades to Mandella’s unexpected journey into an earlier era in racing history. We also will discuss Forte’s victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes and yet another overly aggressive ride from Irad Ortiz Jr. ~ Steve Haskin

Haskell and History a Big Part of Mandella’s Life

By Steve Haskin


It was 23 years ago that Dick Mandella came to New Jersey to run Dixie Union in the Haskell Invitational. When he left New Jersey he was a different person, having experienced a trip back in time that nearly changed his entire life. And it had nothing to do with his Haskell victory in 2000, as special as that was.

So you can imagine how he felt when he realized this year he was going to return more than two decades later with a very special colt named Geaux Rocket Ride, who like Dixie Union came away with a victory in New Jersey’s biggest race. But this visit would be a quick one with no time for history. Before we get into Geaux Rocket Ride and this year’s Haskell, and a look at this past Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes, let’s go back to Mandella’s first trip to the Jersey Shore and a surreal moment he will never forget.

Prior to the draw of the 2000 Haskell, Mandella, a huge history buff, happened to be discussing that he was reading a book about the legendary trainer Sam Hildreth for the second time. Hildreth had co-written a history of American racing called, “The Spell of the Turf,” published in 1926. Hildreth, who trained such greats as Zev, Grey Lag, and Mad Play, was the trainer for Harry Sinclair, who owned the famed Rancocas Stud in New Jersey, previously the birthplace of Iroquois, the first U.S.-bred to win the English Derby in 1881. Founded by Pierre Lorillard in the 1870s, Rancocas was first farm to breed and raise a Kentucky Derby winner and English Derby winner.

Hildreth turned Rancocas Stud into the showplace of American breeding; the most lavish, innovative stud farm in the country, complete with indoor and outdoor training track, magnificent and ornate rooftops and cupolas, and an entrance gate that looked more like the entrance to the palace of Versailles.

So successful was Rancocas Stable, it set a record for earnings in 1923 that stood until 1941 when it was broken by Calumet Farm, which won the Triple Crown that year with Whirlaway. Hildreth also won the Belmont Stakes seven times – three for Rancocas with Zev, Grey Lag, and Mad Play and two for August Belmont Jr. with Hourless and Friar Rock. He won it with Jean Bereaud in 1899 and with Joe Madden, who he owned, in 1909. Hildreth was the leading money-winning trainer in the country nine times, a record that stood for more than 60 years until broken by D. Wayne Lukas in 1992. To demonstrate just how unique a horseman Hildreth was, he was also the leading owner in the country for three consecutive years from 1909-11.

There was no doubt that Hildreth was Mandella’s hero and he couldn’t read enough about him. Mandella had been turned on to books, especially racing history books, by his mentor, trainer V.J. “Lefty” Nickerson. In no time, Mandella, who had never read a book in its entirety before meeting Nickerson, began absorbing the old-time tales of the Turf, including jockeys like Tod Sloan and Fred Archer, like a sponge.

Now that Mandella was in New Jersey, the home of Rancocas Stud and the ghost of Sam Hildreth, the heck with the Haskell. Somewhere there was hallowed ground on which he wanted, maybe even needed, to stand. He realized that Rancocas probably was long gone, but that didn’t matter.

“I wish I knew exactly where it was located,” Mandella said. “Even if it’s now a shopping center or condos, I just want to stand on that ground. I don’t care how far away it is.”

I told him to sit down. “Well, you’ll be interested to know that not only do I know where Rancocas Stud was located, it’s still there,” I said. Mandella the veteran horse trainer suddenly turned into 9-year-old Ralphie, who was just given a Red Ryder Range Model Air Rifle BB gun, the “Holy Grail” of all Christmas presents.

I explained that it was now called Helis Stock Farm, home of the Helis family that used to own horses, including the top-class Helioscope, who stood at Darby Dan Farm. The farm was located in the tiny hamlet of Jobstown, only about 20 minutes from my house, which consisted of about 10 old buildings and a church. The farm was sprawled out as far as the eye could see, covering over 1,300 acres. The stunning front gate was still there, as was the training track, although overgrown, and trainer’s stand, and several of the barns. It had been converted by the family of the late William Helis into a cattle, produce, and tobacco farm, but you could still feel the history all around you.

Mandella quickly made arrangements to visit the farm and the following morning I met him at Monmouth where Mandella, his wife Randi, and I got in their rented Explorer, hit the New Jersey back roads, and headed back about a hundred years. On the way, he kept pointing out houses in which he would love to live.

We drove into the farm, and in no time, there was Mandella with a look of awe and wonder on his face and disposable camera in hand, standing on that same hallowed ground he had been reading about. When he looked out on the one-mile training track, the thought hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks that he would love to make an offer on the farm and convert it back into a working Thoroughbred training facility. The barns, although still ornate with their striking cupolas, needed a good deal of repair. Was Dick Mandella, a legend in Southern California for so many years, actually considering moving cross-country to New Jersey?

After all, this was where 1923 Kentucky Derby winner Zev, who won a historical match race against the European champion Papyrus, once worked and galloped. Mandella continued on through the indoor training track and barns and could envision their one-time elegance and charm and what they must have looked like back in the glory days of the farm. He looked out over fields of corn and soybeans where the legendary Iroquois once frolicked as a youngster. The history books were coming alive. Words like “amazing” and “unbelievable” flowed freely for the next two and a half hours.

You would never guess that Mandella was running a horse in the Haskell the next day, who was schooling in the paddock as he toured the farm. The present was on hold for the time being and thoughts of Dixie Union would have to wait.

After profusely thanking farm manager Ed Lovenduski, Mandella reluctantly departed, with visions of what it would be like to restore this farm to something resembling its former glory and train there. But reality soon set in. The Helis family had no desire to sell or turn it back into a horse farm. As for Mandella, he won the Haskell the next day, and went back to California, taking with him a special piece of history he believed no longer existed. The pipedream was over, but for a brief moment in time he was able to escape into a magical world that had existed only in books and in the imagination.

Three years after Dixie Union’s Haskell victory, Mandella would become the first trainer to win four Breeders’ Cup races on one card at a time when all the races were run in a single day. And he did it at his home track of Santa Anita.

Returning to the Haskell this year, Mandella hadn’t forgotten our memorable day together. I kiddingly texted him after Geaux Rocket Ride’s impressive 1 3/4-length victory over Kentucky Derby winner Mage saying, “If I knew you were coming I would have taken you back to Rancocas Stud for your 23-year visit.” Believing I was serious and not knowing I now live in Connecticut, he replied. “Sorry, I got so busy I forget to call you. I came in there close to the race. I wish I would have had time to go out and see it again.” It was so great to know the magic still had not worn off after all these years.

This year, the Breeders’ Cup will again be run at Santa Anita, and it looks as if Mandella could have a big shot to win his second Classic with Geaux Rocket Ride, who has two Grade 1 preps, the Pacific Classic and the Awesome Again Stakes, on his agenda.

With Geaux Rocket Ride’s win in the Haskell, it was a deja vu moment for Mandella, once again sending out a Grade 1 winner, this time wearing the famed blue and gray striped silks of Pin Oak Stud, built by Josephine Abercrombie and and her father in 1952. Abercrombie died in 2022 at age 95 and Pin Oak was purchased by new owner Jim Bernhard, who retained the name and storied silks.

In 2021, Jim, knowing his wife Dana had been involved with horses since she was a little girl, decided to buy a horse for her birthday. While at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale they met Matt Wiseman of Equine Analysis Systems, whose team had been buying horses for their clients for years. Bernhard told Wiseman he was looking to buy one horse for his wife, and after thorough scrutiny by the team they bought him a Candy Ride colt, out of the Uncle Mo mare Beyond Grace, for $350,000. Bernhard also hired Wiseman to be his racing manager and bloodstock advisor.

“My team and I were working the sale like we usually do, using our technology and data to measure physiology along with traditional horsemanship to find the best prospects,” Wiseman said.” Geaux Rocket Ride came up on our system as horse with a high statistical likelihood of success. He had just enough size and strength so we went for it. We knew we had a pretty special horse if he grew up and filled out.”

The following January Wiseman went to see the newly turned 2-year-old colt at Keith Asmussen’s training center in Laredo, Texas where he was being broke and loved what he saw. “When I arrived Keith told me right away I had a pretty nice horse,” Wiseman said. “My team measured his physiology again and he had grown and filled out into a lovely horse. I called Jim and Dana and told them, ‘I think we have something pretty special down in Texas.’

Wiseman contacted Dick Mandella and told him he had a really nice colt he wanted to send to him, and Mandella agreed to take him.

“I called Richard and said I was sending him a Candy Ride colt that reminded me of Shared Belief,” Wiseman said. “I’m sure he’s heard stuff like that from a lot of racing managers so I doubt he believed me. But he liked him from the start and told me we just needed to be patient with him while he developed, so we targeted a big 3-year-old campaign with him rather than rushing him to the races at 2. I fell in love with horse racing as a teenager and both Richard Mandella and Mike Smith were two people I idolized. To win the Haskell with both of them doesn’t get much cooler than that.”

Geaux Rocket Ride had shown he could be something special when he finished a strong second in the San Felipe Stakes to the leading California 3-year-old Practical Move in only his second career start. He had broken his maiden by almost six lengths on January 29 blazing six furlongs in 1:09 2/5. The Santa Anita Derby was next, but he came down with a 103-degree fever the morning of the race and had to be scratched.

“When that happened we knew we wouldn’t have enough points to make the Kentucky Derby so we regrouped and circled the Haskell on our calendar as the main target for the summer,” Wiseman said.

So Richard Mandella returned to New Jersey where 23 years earlier history had come alive right before his eyes as he stood on the hallowed grounds of the old Rancocas Stud and witnessed the sights he had been reading about and imagining in his mind. When he departed New Jersey last weekend he had left his own mark in the history books, and judging from Geaux Rocket Ride’s emphatic Haskell victory there likely is more history to come.

Forte Needs Better PR from his Rider

First let me say I am not one who continuously spits into the wind, so to come out and again say what I think of Irad Ortiz Jr.’s riding tactics and his no-touch relationship with the NYRA stewards would leave me with yet another wet face. This isn’t the place to spout off on what has become the routine in New York, so just listen to the Fox commentators after Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and read Twitter and Indian Charlie and leave it at that.

Finally, we’ll see what the stewards do in the aftermath of Forte’s nose victory over Saudi Crown when they watch Ortiz aboard, after coming out and plowing into Angel of Empire, go to a left-handed whip and come out into him again. What I will focus on is Forte, and I must admit I was rooting for him and always have and was glad in a way he was saved from suffering yet another indignity, for he deserved the victory and was the best horse in the race. The champ is still the champ who wants to win and knows how to win.

Forget the Belmont Stakes except to say he had to overcome a great deal to get second at a distance that no longer can be used to discredit a horse’s reputation. Forte is a champion in the truest sense of the word and when he targets a horse his aim is dead-on no matter how he gets it done. Regardless of how big a lead you have on him he will find a way to get you. So I will say the stewards, right or wrong, left the best horse up.

I just hope Todd Pletcher has a talk with Ortiz before the Travers and enlightens the talented but sometimes controversial rider to the fact that there will come a day when he is not going to benefit from the stewards’ good graces and to make sure Oritz doesn’t put them on the hot seat in the Travers when the pressure will be on them after the Jim Dandy.

Getting back to Forte, it’s been a wild and crazy journey. He was criticized after his so-called unimpressive victory in the Florida Derby when he looked lethargic on the far turn and had to run his guts out in the stretch to beat Mage. Then his speed figures, which weren’t Derby caliber and never improved from 2 to 3, pointed to him as a beatable Kentucky Derby favorite and many handicappers jumped off the bandwagon. His works leading up to the Derby were fairly mediocre and there was little buzz surrounding him. Then one morning at Churchill Downs he stumbled while in a routine gallop and the warning flares went up.

Then came reports of a foot bruise that supposedly was no big deal and downplayed by Pletcher. Meanwhile, Churchill Downs was undergoing a rash of horse fatalities that had everyone on edge trying to figure out what going on over a track that normally is considered one of the safest. So on Derby morning Forte was given one final examination by the state veterinarians, who decided to scratch the Derby favorite, much to the ire of Pletcher and the more vocal owner Mike Repole.

As if that wasn’t enough of a jolt, by being placed on the vet’s list it meant Forte would be unable to run in the Preakness, so just like that the first two legs of the Triple Crown were lost. But the indignities weren’t over. Several days later it was announced that Forte had come up positive for the anti-inflammatory drug meloxicam in the previous year’s Hopeful Stakes and the victory and the purse were taken away from him. That case is still under appeal.

Now he had to go into the mile and a half Belmont Stakes off a 10-week layoff, and despite losing ground and having the circle the field seven-wide he still dug in and rallied to get up for second behind an up-and-coming star who had a ground-saving dream trip.

Pletcher decided to experiment by putting blinkers on Forte for the Jim Dandy, and after showing more speed than usual out of the gate, he again had to dig deep to run down another up-and-coming star who was the only speed in the race and was able to get away with moderate to slow fractions. Once again we saw a relentless Forte overcome all odds to snatch victory in the final strides.

So, yes, Forte deserved this victory, and all we can hope for now is that Ortiz allows Forte to run in the Travers without detracting from the race. This horse knows how to win and will find a way to win on his own… just let him.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Denver/EQUI-PHOTO and Adam Coglianese

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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117 Responses to “Haskell and History a Big Part of Mandella’s Life”

  1. JOE DERBY says:

    Pretty sad what happened to Maple Leaf Mel Saturday 8-5-23 I feel for Melanie saddest thing I’ve ever seen in horseracing in 25 years and the whole back story with Melanie. I don’t know if u want to make any comment Steve. Thanks

  2. Nelson Maan says:

    I was always in awe by the ability of Richard Mandella to keep South American Grade 1 horses at the same competitive level in the US. This smooth transition is something very difficult to achieve …

    In fact, five of Mandella’s top ten best horses are South American (who does not remember the exploits of Gentlemen (ARG), Redattore (BRZ) ,Siphon (BRZ) and Sandpit (BRZ) on dirt and turf).
    Other horses like Puerto Madero (CHI) and Malek (CHI) were notable Grade 1 winners who competed and defeated the best horses of their times.

    Horsemen from Brazil, Argentina and Chile should erect statues honoring Richard Mandella and Ronald McAnally for elevating their horses to the summit of American racing.

    The latest South American success stories crafted by Mandella were Bali Bali (BRZ), Jolie Olimpica (BRZ) and Royal Ship (BRZ). I am expecting excellent future performances at Grade 1 level from another Brazilian bred named Planetario…

    And of course, one should also expect great things to come from Geaux Rocket Ride who is indeed primed to follow the lines of his great brother Shared Belief.

    • Davids says:

      Nelson, Charlie Whittingham gets a nod as well with Cougar II and to a lesser extent Forli. The master trainer also had success with European horses – Dahlia, New Zealand bred – Darryl’s Joy, and Australian bred – Strawberry Road.

      • Nelson Maan says:

        Yes Davids … The Bald Eagle was more than brilliant with foreign horses… Also, I am always amazed by his work with the incomparable Greinton (GB). Perrault (GB), Erins Isle (IRE) and the mare Claire Marine (IRE) all developed great Grade 1 campaigns…and we also have the HoF Exceller attesting Charlie Whittingham’s mastery…

        • Jeff says:

          The good old days, loved the bald eagle, all those horses were amazing. Dick Mandella is a master at his craft. Wonderful story by Steve. Bobby Frankel was awesome with European horses…

  3. Mike Relva says:

    Horrible/sad regarding Mel and Summer. Wondering where BB’s number 1 fan ‘John’ is? Seems he’s AWOL since poor horses from barns his ‘hero’ has no bearing.

  4. Lynda King says:

    Ever Summer catastrophic injury on turf course, euthanized on track.
    Irad Ortiz said to be OK.
    Frivole vanned off, no word on her.

  5. Matthew W says:

    Melair had 5 races, 5 wins in a career that lasted 2 months and 11 days….young trainer John Sadler….grey 3yo filly….has a Cal-bred stakes named after her…

    Maple Leaf Mel…another “Mel” filly….young trainer…grey 3yo…..6 starts 6 wins I suppose will have a NY bred stakes named for her….

  6. Lynda King says:

    Somewhere… somewhere in time’s own space, there must be some sweet pastured space where creeks sing on, and tall trees grow, Some paradise where horses go. For by the love that guides my pen, I know great horses live again.” — Stanley Harrison

  7. Nick says:

    Steve we all need your words of wisdom to get thru yesterdays events

    • Steve haskin says:

      We dont get back until Monday afternoon and Leonard Monday evening so column wont be until Tuesday and is already written. I will see if I can add a little something but tough to do

  8. Matthew W says:

    Brendan Walsh draped the winner’s flower blanket over Maple Street Mel’s door this AM….

  9. Todd Vaughn says:

    First, i don’t see how, considering the whole picture, this is not worse than Ruffian and Go For Wand. Second, this may be the year of Javier Castellano, but his comments after the race were appalling. He said that the distraction of seeing Mel go down cost his filly the race. Who cares? Brendan Walsh was classy, and knowing the character of Tyler Gaffalione, i know he wasn’t celebrating either.

    • Jiffy says:

      I did find this sadder and more disturbing than either Ruffian or Go For Wand. Granted, they were more accomplished, but the picture of Maple Leaf Mel lying in the hay beside her trainer with her head on Melanie’s chest is one I won’t forget. As for Javier Castellano, I didn’t hear the interview–I only read what he said–and I don’t think he meant to be unfeeling. He was just reporting on his horse’s performance, and probably the horse was indeed upset by what he saw. Probably Javier was too and he may not have chosen his words as carefully as he might have. I’ll cut him a little slack on that one. And not surprisingly, Tyler Gaffalione did post a very caring tweet.

      • Lynda King says:

        Jiffy, I too read what Javier said….his filly practically stopped when the accident happened with Maple Leaf Mel and lost her momentum. I do not think he meant any harm by it.. I have always known him to be kind and considerate.

        Horses are way more intuitive to what is going on than we might think. I almost think that it is possible that is what caused Cody’s Wish to wash out in the paddock, refuse to load and had a bad break from the gate. Saw a photo of him walking past young Cody just a few minutes before he was to walk on the track. He was not washed out or acting up. We already know CW is in tune with human emotions from how he connects with young Cody.

        The entire horse racing community has been rocked by this tragedy as have many of the fans.I have several friends who have commented that they do not think they will ever watch another horse race. Sometimes there is one heartbreak too many.

        Melanie is in remission from cancer and she put her heart and soul into Mel, it is what kept her going. It is her story and those photos of her with Mel that has shaken all us all of us to the core. Another one of my friends posted photos of Mel walking onto the paddock, that little mare looked like she owned the world and for a brief time she did.

        • arlingtonfan says:

          You’re right, Lynda, horses are extremely intuitive. I find your theory about Cody’s Wish entirely plausible. It makes me think of Barbaro’s Preakness. Remember how he was so keyed up and broke out of the gate prematurely? I always wondered whether he sensed something was wrong before his injury occurred.

          • Lynda King says:

            af, I have sometimes thought the same about Barbaro.
            Horses evolved from 5 toes to one toe and survived eons of evolution and changes to the planet because of their intelligence, instincts and intuition.

          • Jiffy says:

            I also thought about Big Brown after he won the Derby. Coming back to the winner’s circle, he saw Eight Belles lying on the track and he freaked out and threw his rider and tried to get out of there. Fortunately, an outrider had hold of him. But he knew something terrible had happened, and he wanted to get away from it. Castellano’s mount may have been similarly traumatized.

        • Jiffy says:

          Yes, Lynda, Melanie’s situation and her relationship with Maple Leaf Mel were what made this so much sadder than other tragic horse deaths. But I also was horrified at how and where it happened. She had the race won. Frank Miramadi was already starting to praise her victory. When a horse opens up daylight in the final yards and nobody is coming on, you relax, maybe applaud, and think you’re home free. You never imagine that something terrible could happen then, and seeing it changes your whole outlook. This afternoon if I saw a horse with a big lead in the stretch, I would wonder if he would make it to the wire. I’ll get over that in time, but I never thought that way before.

          • arlingtonfan says:

            I hear you, Jiffy. Although I did not see the race, when I read accounts of what happened, I was thinking these same things.

  10. Matthew W says:

    Nobody wants this. …horses are bred…horses are born….horses are fed….horses are trained….horses are raced and horses are loved, doing what they love to do…..horses break down on the racetrack and on the high desert plains of Nevada….

  11. Lynda King says:

    There are no words, just tears.
    Maple Leaf Mel.

  12. Roy says:

    I’m done with this game.