Photo: Zoe Metz
I caught up with Richard Mandella at his barn at Santa Anita to find out how this amazing filly, Paradise Woods, managed to pull off one of the most impressive finishes of all time.
Everyone who follows racing, even slightly, knows about the 11 ¾ length victory that Paradise Woods
glided to in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. This was the third race for the young star, but it may never
have come to fruition if the stars hadn’t lined up the way they did. And when they did, they created a
shooting star that shot from the head of the Santa Anita stretch to the finish line and quite possibly well
Getting the lead in the first quarter, Paradise Woods set a relaxed pace with Flavien Prat ever so gently
checking her when she wanted to accelerate. Prat let her go just as they passed the 3/8ths pole. No one
had a chance to challenge her. She held on to the lead and slipped further away from the field with every
stride she took. Just passed the quarter pole Prat took another hold and asked her to pick up the bit. She
kicked it in gear. Prat pushed her away from the field, reaching up and taking another hold and giving her
a left-hand pop as they rounded for home. He hand rode her to the middle of the stretch, when he looked
back and realized that the field had disappeared. He stood up a bit before they reached the wire and let her
glide the rest of the way home. Paradise Woods had her ears pricked looking like she was galloping in a
quiet meadow just feeling her oats.
Everyone who had the chance to see Paradise Wood’s performance live, experienced poetry in motion.
We have experienced this before with another Mandella filly, one we watched blossom into a mature and
graceful champion and became one of racing’s darlings, the beautiful grand dame, Beholder.
One of the hallmarks of Mandella’s training is to run his horses with a lot of time between races. This is
an aspect of training that is an integral part of keeping horses relaxed and sound. There were 44 days
between her first and second race and 28 days to the Santa Anita Oaks.
I had some questions for Mandella about this filly that covers ground like a cheetah chasing its prey. But
before we started the interview I went to Paradise Woods’ stall to introduce myself. She is a very sweet
filly. She is also very curious. She had her head out of the stall with her ears pricked. She was watching
everything that was going on. When I walked up to her she turned her beautiful face towards me and
started flaring her nostrils. She must have smelt my perfume. It was new to her and I was new to her. I
offered my hand for her to sniff and then she was happy to let me pet her. She’s beautiful on the inside, as
well as on the outside.
Since Mandella always wants to get as many things done at the same time as possible, we walked back
and forth to the track with a set of horses for the interview. I waited for my cue, which is usually, “Start
talking,” then I asked him:
I’m assuming that you knew you were going to get this filly the moment she was born – Correct?
No. Herman Sarkowsky asked me to go and look at her when she was a weanling, at Hidden Springs
Farm in Kentucky. I went and looked at her and called him and told her she was a beautiful filly.
Paradise Woods is owned by Herman Sarkowsky and Martin Wygod. Mr. Sarkowsky passed away on
November 2, 2014, but before his death, Mr. Sarkowsky conveyed to Mandella that he wanted him to have
What did you think when you looked at her breeding. What did you expect her to be able to do?
I didn’t look at her breeding. I knew she was by Union Rags, I liked that. I knew that on the dam’s side it
was kind of a fast family.
That’s true. Her mother never ran. The grandsire on her dam’s side, father of Forest Wildcat, is Storm
Cat, who never ran more than six furlongs – a very fast horse. Union Rags, however, possessed tactical
speed and could go a distance. So putting all that together, did it influence what you thought the filly
I didn’t look at her pedigree because if an owner, who has been with me for 38 years, asks me to look at
the horse whether I like it or not like it if he wants me to train it, I’m going to train it. So, it really didn’t
matter how she was bred. If he wanted me to have her, we were going to have her. It wasn’t a decision
whether I wanted her or not. But when I looked at her I thought she was a beautiful filly.
The farm manager had the same opinion. Everyone that was around her liked the looks of her.
If anyone knows what a good looking horse is and how those looks translate into what a horse is capable
of, it’s Richard Mandella. Case in point: Phone Trick. As I wrote in an article published by the Paulick
Report: “At the 1984 CTBA March Two Year Sale, Mandella took one look at Kentucky-bred Phone Trick
and said, "I had to have him." And it was definitely a good choice. Phone Trick's learning curve was
straight up and record breaking fast.”
Phone Trick was unbeaten in his first nine starts, winning first time out at Santa Anita in a Maiden Special Weight.
Once you had Paradise Woods and were more familiar with her breeding, what did you envision her
capabilities could be?
Well, we could tell right away she’s fast. She also had a big stride. And a look that told you two turns
shouldn’t be a problem. She was by a horse that was champion two-year-old, Union Rags, and he won the
Belmont Stakes. The jury is still out on how that’s going to work, so I think we got a little bit of both.
She didn’t start until she was three. Why was that?
She went through the training center with Martin Wygod’s other horses and she was looking like she
wasn’t coming on well enough and they decided to turn her out and let her grow up a bit.
Time, the grand elixir, especially in this game.
Her first race was a maiden special weight, six furlongs, ,and she ended up second by 3 ¾ lengths. When
you saw that did you think Phone Chatter, Action this Day, and Beholder, all of which did not win their
first time out, but became champions?
No, I was disappointed. I thought nobody would beat her first time out. I thought she’d win a maiden race
easy. She hung a little the last eighth of a mile and it threw me a little bit. She trained well out of it and
did everything like a pro after the race.
That’s interesting because knowing what I know now about the way you train, you came to the point in
your career where you thought you were asking too much of your horses in their first race. The words you
used were, “I’d have my horses as fit as they were ever going to be and were going to run the best race
they were ever going to run first time out.”You then began to think that you might be wasting a race and
realized that perhaps it was better to give them room to grow and you were no longer worried about a
first-time starter not winning. So, this one's a little bit different.
Well, she was just so smart and so fast, I just thought she would do it the first time out. I’m not saying I
wasn’t disappointed. But I was also concerned that, maybe, I didn’t train her very well.
What would you have done differently?
Nothing. I was just making a joke.
Well, I was going to say, this is another trait of a great trainer, they never think they know it all, but I’ll
scratch that. Moving on.
The second race was another maiden special weight. You shortened her up to 5 ½ furlongs. Why?
Because that’s the way it came up in the book and she was ready to run. And there was no question that
she was fast enough in my mind, so I used it as an opportunity to let her leave the gate, sit back, knowing
that it would be a fast pace going 5 ½ and school her a little bit and she did that and here we are.
In a short race, in this case, a super short race, nobody is going to sit back, almost nobody. Her only
rider has been Flavien Prat, Prat said in a Paulick Report article that, “She is so smart. If you teach her
something she remembers it the next day, it sticks.” Between Mandella’s training and Prat’s riding, they
taught this young horse something that many speed horses never learn. They taught her to sit back and
wait until she is asked to run. Out of the gate, she was sixth. At the ¼ pole, she was fifth by 2 ½ lengths.
She eased up to second by 2 ½ lengths at the head of the stretch. When Prat asked her to make her move,
and when she made that move, she left the rest of the field 4 ½ lengths behind her as she won the race.
What do you think Flavien Prat had to do with teaching this filly what she needed to know to launch her
into her meteoric success?
I think the world of Flavien. He’s a great rider and he has a great future. He is an addition to any horse he
When she won by 4 ½ lengths, did that surprise you that she won by that far?
No. That’s what we expected the first time out. The impressive part was that she did accept rating and
settling back on that fast pace. She came between horses and did everything professionally.
Third race - This young, inexperienced girl had only two maiden special weight races under her belt, one
short and one shorter. Mandella then asked her to make a huge jump from 5 ½ furlongs to a mile and a
sixteenth, coupled with the fact that the race was a Grade 1 prep race for the Kentucky Oaks.
This jump from a short race to a distance race is a tactic that Mandella has been very successful with. He
has something that he calls a “comfort level,” which enables him to do this. And it is also a lack of that
“comfort level” that keeps trainers from trying it. As Mandella describes it in an article I wrote for the
Paulick Report, “There's a comfort level in knowing horses can run six furlongs. If their horse is fast,
trainers will run them short because the horse can do it. … I try to hide the speed from the horse because
if you can get that speed under control then you've really got something. Like Beholder. Like American
Mandella goes on to say, “Years ago for John Mabee, I had a mare named Beautiful Melody. I did the
same exact thing with her. I ran her short and she was close and stopped. Then I ran her a mile and an
eighth on the grass and she won easily. She ended up winning a Grade 1 on the grass at Hollywood Park
and actually dead-heated with another filly of mine in a Grade 1. But you have to have a comfort level
and believe that can happen. A lot of people can get entranced with the idea of six furlongs and then
seven furlongs and stretch it out an inch at a time. Sometimes that's too cautious. If you have a horse that
is going to make the lead earlier, because they have that speed, a horse with speed can make the lead
easier in a long race because everybody's afraid to push. Where if you stretch it out to seven-eighths of a
mile, they're still going to send those speed horses early and you won't make an easy lead. Sometimes, if
you put a horse in a 1 1/8-mile race, he gets such an easy lead he gets confident and keeps going.”
This is a tactic that you have been very successful with. But what were you expecting when you looked at
the competition, side by side, were you sure she could stretch out and handle the competition?
Well, we thought so or we wouldn’t have put her in there. It was just a matter of how she was handling
herself and she did everything to make us think that she was ready to go this way. There were good fillies
in the race, but I thought she was as good as anyone’s filly.
What about Unique Bella? Did entering Paradise Woods in the Santa Anita Oaks have anything to do
with Unique Bella scratching out of the race with shin problems?
Yes. I would have progressed a little bit slower. There was a 6 ½ race the next day, the Santa Paula, that I
was thinking of putting her in. But I didn’t want to throw her, that quickly, into competing with a
superstar, like Unique Bella. But when Unique Bella was out of the picture, I thought my filly was as
good as any other filly and it was time to get started.
Mandella’s “sprint to distance” formula coupled with one of the biggest stars, Unique Bella, pulling out
of the race, lined up giving Paradise Woods a spectacular, “shooting star win,” which works out
metaphorically and is very much a reality.
Based on what’s left of the competition, what’s in the future for this filly? And, naturally, my thoughts are
aiming at the Kentucky Oaks.
Well, right now, she is aiming at the Kentucky Oaks and if everything goes well and she continues to do
well, that’s what we’ll do. If things don’t go that way, we’ll come up with another plan.
You said when you watched her run in the Santa Anita Oaks, that it took your breath away. So, you
weren’t expecting anything like that?
I didn’t expect her to take over the race.
Why would anybody?!
Well, in your case, I found it odd when you said her performance took your breath away because you do
this all the time (as I explained above). Also, I do know that you have a pretty good bead on your horses,
as well as knowing what the capabilities of the competition are.
You hope to win the race. I never go in thinking I’m going to destroy everybody. I don’t think that way. I
go in hoping it works. Hoping we’ve done our job. Hoping we're not too far off base here putting her in a
big race like this and hoping to win. When she left the top of the stretch and opened up and just left the
field, it was pretty devastating, I thought.
“Devastating” for everyone else in the race. “Exhilarating” for Paradise Woods, Team Mandella, and
Team Flavien Prat, which includes his first and only agent, Derek Lawson.
A couple of things are for sure: One, Mandella doesn’t need to hope anymore. And two, with the
exhilarating, “shooting star” performance that Paradise Woods put on for racing fans, the Kentucky
Oaks may very well be watched and bet on, as much as the Kentucky Derby and that is a good thing for
It’s pretty safe to say, that everything Mandella does is good for the sport.
And as far as the jury being out on whether Paradise Woods inherited the tactical speed and distance that
her sire, Union Rags had, and the pure speed that her dam’s side inherited from Storm Cat, I’d say that
the case has been decided. The stars lined up again and gave her everything that creates a champion.
We just might be witnessing a second coming of Beholder.
And that’s a very good for the sport.
~Written by Tere Albanese