In an age and in an industry in which employees tend to jump from one opportunity to another, Felipe Pulido Mendoza was hired by Richard Mandella in 1974 and became someone the eventual Hall of Fame trainer continues to view as indispensable.
Pulido Mendoza was still learning early lessons as a groom when Bad ‘n Big developed into Mandella's first big horse as winner of the Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar in 1978.
Later, Pulido Mendoza created such a strong bond as Dare and Go's caretaker that the horse who ended Cigar's 16-race winning streak in the 1996 Pacific Classic balked at being handled by anyone else. He would violently toss his head whenever others attempted to place a halter on him.
Pulido Mendoza comforted Soul of the Matter by riding with him in the cargo hold of a plane bound halfway around the world from California. Their journey led them to a second-place finish to the mighty Cigar in the 1996 Dubai World Cup.
The native of Pihuamo in the state of Jalisco in Mexico never imagined the experiences he would have when he left his hometown 44 years ago at age 21.
“I came with nothing and with no goals except to find work here,” he said during a phone interview facilitated by his son, Rene, who translated.
He found more than work in the United States. He met Irene shortly after his arrival; they were soon married. They take great pride in Rene, 42, a social worker for Los Angeles County, and their daughter, Brenda, 41, a financial manager for a dental company.
The couple rents a one-bedroom apartment in Eagle Rock, Calif., approximately 10 minutes from his workplace – Barn 4 at Santa Anita. He drives to work in a 2000 Nissan Frontier pickup truck. Before that, his ride was a 1976 Chevrolet Blazer.
Some would say Pulido Mendoza has little. He holds a different view.
“I am fine with what I have,” he said.
It should already be clear he is a man of few words. He may be short on style, not substance.
“He's a very quiet person,” Mandella said. “He does his job. He spends a lot of time with his horses. He knows what's going on, that's for sure. He could probably do my job very well.”
Mandella watched Pulido Mendoza progress in some ways but not in others.
“He was just a hotwalker learning when I met him and he turned into a super groom,” the trainer said. “I tried to make him a foreman with the idea of making him an assistant. He did it for awhile and didn't like it. He asked me to go back to being a groom.”
When Mendoza requested the demotion, his boss reluctantly obliged.
“As much as he loves his horses, it didn't surprise me because of that,” Mandella said. “He'd rather work with horses than people, and that's understandable.”
Mandella emphasized that retaining employees such as Pulido Mendoza is vital to his success. He said the workers who form the nucleus of his staff have been with him for more than 30 years.
“This is hard work. The American society isn't used to working like this anymore, to be honest with you,” Mandella said. “The young people of America, to be up early every day and be here before 5 o'clock, it takes a lot of commitment. We don't have a lot of Americans who show interest in doing it.
“I hate to be negative that way, but it's a fact and it probably should be pointed out. So when you've got people who are willing to do it and do a good job, you feel grateful to have them.”
Mandella employed Irene as a groom soon after the couple married. He hired Rene as a hotwalker while Rene was in high school and as a day watchman on weekends while he attended San Diego State. He helped with the paperwork necessary for Felipe and Irene to become naturalized citizens.
Pulido Mendoza never forgot that when rival trainers approached him about working for them.
“He's had offers to go to other barns,” Rene said. “He's always declined because he's always appreciated how Mandella runs his barn and his loyalty to him.”
Mandella is known for providing his horses with outstanding care. He treats Pulido Mendoza and other grooms as valued members of his team, regularly seeking their input.
“You are working with that horse day in and day out,” said Pulido Mendoza. “You know if he's walking different, if he's hurt in the back, how well they're eating. My information helps.”
Pulido Mendoza cares for four horses. He arrives for work at 4:30 a.m., half an hour before he is due, and completes his first shift at 11 a.m. He returns from 2-4 p.m. for feeding. Irene sometimes takes a bus to Santa Anita to meet him for lunch. His days off are often spent with her at the track.
“He lives a humble life by all means,” Rene said. “He's not one to want the newer things. It's from work to home.”
Pulido Mendoza's only issue involves age. He knows he is not moving around horses as nimbly as he once did. Certain chores are becoming increasingly difficult due to wear and tear on his body. Mandella offered to provide whatever help he needs.
Pulido Mendoza rarely asks.
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