Before trainer Richard Mandella accepted the Honor Guest recognition from the Thoroughbred Club of America, he enjoyed a walk through the Lexington club and marveled at the past winners of the award first bestowed in 1932 to Col. E.R. Bradley, who gathered his third of four Kentucky Derby wins that year with Burgoo King.
Before receiving the award from 2022 Honor Guest Ed Bowen—past steward of both the BloodHorse and Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation—Mandella scanned a packed Keeneland clubhouse filled with four previous Honor Guests, and many family and friends among some 200 attendees of the 92nd testimonial dinner Nov. 18 in Lexington.
Those sights would make an impression on the trainer.
"This is pretty humbling," Mandella said. "I went over to the TCA building across the street and looked at the pictures. People have done this before me. I just have to say this is so humbling.
"I've always believed what I heard a person say once that if you want to know who I am, look at my friends."
The TCA honored Mandella for his accomplishments on the track, where he's won nine Breeders' Cup races including three with Spendthrift Farm's Racing Hall of Fame mare Beholder and four in one day in 2003; as well as his efforts to improve the sport. Mandella was a driving force in the voided-claim rules that have become the standard at North American tracks, adding protections for Thoroughbreds.
Spendthrift Farm's Eric Gustavson has seen that horsemanship first-hand.
"I once heard Richard say, 'I can't get out of the horses what God didn't put in,'" Gustavson said in the program's testimonials. "That may be true but for us at Spendthrift Farm, no one has gotten out what God put in better than Richard Mandella.
"Among many other training successes Richard has had for us is a special family affair which has been an enormous blessing for our Spendthrift Family," Gustavson added, noting his training of grade 1 winner and eventual five-time leading sire for Spendthrift Into Mischief , his half sister Beholder, an 11-time grade 1 winner; and now her daughters, grade 3 winner Teena Ella and grade 1 winner Tamara.
Bowen recalled Mandella's participation in the first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit presented by Grayson-Jockey Club and The Jockey Club in 2006 at Keeneland.
"Those discussions in turn led to the institution of rules that void claims if a horse is injured during the race or unable to finish," Bowen said. "Today all of the racetracks covered by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority have versions of the void-claim rules, giving enhanced incentive to do what is best for the horse's health and soundness."
Mandella was introduced at the dinner by Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock, a past Honor Guest who credited Mandella's commitment to maintaining a small stable as part of his racing success while noting his achievements beyond racing.
"We're all aware of the long, long list of great horses that Dick Mandela has trained. Do you all realize that that list of horses has been generated by a man who's never trained more than 40 horses at a time? And do you realize that amongst all those great horses, is probably the greatest race mare we've seen over the last 10 to 12 years (Beholder), who this year alone has produced a grade 1 winner and the sale-topping yearling," Hancock said. "So that's an amazing achievement. One of those colts that he trained has been leading sire in the country for the last four years. That's a hell of an accomplishment for somebody that's carried 40 horses.
"Add on to that the fact that Dick is always at the forefront of any endeavor that's for the betterment of the horse or for horse racing. Also, he's been a loving husband of Randi for over 50 years. He's been a wonderful father to Gary, who spent a summer in Kentucky with us many years ago. And Andrea, who was smart enough to move here."
Randi, Andrea, and trainer Gary Mandella attended Friday's dinner. In his acceptance speech as Mandella recounted the many people who helped further his racing career over the years, he paused that story to thank Randi.
"I'm going to stop right here a minute because without my wife Randi who has stood by me all these years and allowed me to move and do these things; this would not be possible," Mandella said. "It takes the support of somebody like her. She probably ought to be getting this award not me."
Considering it was a night to honor Mandella, who always has appreciated good humor, there were plenty of laughs as well. Seth Hancock noted Mandella's struggles with directions and automobiles, recalling a time the Racing Hall of Fame trainer parked a car but forgot to shut it off—leaving it running for several hours.
Of his smaller stable, Mandella offered, somewhere between truth and humor, "I've never been equipped to have a lot of horses or a lot of business. I was not good in school. I had to talk my way out of it. They said if I'd behaved they'd let me go."
Talking about his fortunate career path, he joked about his long relationship with owner Ramona Bass that has included many top horses.
"I've never applied for a job. I've never asked a person directly for a horse except one, Ramona Bass," Mandella said, before adding with a big smile. "God, I'll never do that again."
And after speaking for about 15 minutes after accepting the honor, Mandella wrapped up with: "So with that, I'll open it to questions."