04/07/2003 12:00AM

Better believe Buddy Gil's for real

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ARCADIA, Calif. - As far as Buddy Gil is concerned, talk is cheap. Sent off the fourth choice in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby despite two consecutive stakes wins, including a San Felipe victory over Atswhatimtalknbout, the plucky Buddy Gil outfinished longshot Indian Express and favored Atswhatimtalknbout in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, the final major West Coast prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

In doing so, Buddy Gil provided jockey Gary Stevens with his record ninth Santa Anita Derby victory. Stevens had been tied at eight with Bill Shoemaker.

Buddy Gil loomed up on the outside of the leaders as the field went around the final turn, and then he and Indian Express pulled away from the rest. They had a spirited battle down the stretch, with Buddy Gil proving best by a head before an ontrack crowd of 33,964.

Indian Express, who set or forced the early pace, was 2 1/4 lengths clear of third-place Kafwain. Atswhatimtalknbout, the 3-2 favorite, was another 1 1/4 lengths back in fourth. Those four are all expected to go to the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

Domestic Dispute, Logician, Flirt With Fortune, Iron Lad, and Ocean Terrace completed the order of finish. Ministers Wild Cat was scratched the morning of the race because of a bruise to his right hind hoof.

Buddy Gil ($14.60) was timed in 1:49.36 for 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track. The race was run with a rapid pace early, but the final three furlongs were run slowly, in more than 39 seconds.

Indian Express was one of three horses in the race trained by Bob Baffert. Indian Express and Ocean Terrace set a hot pace of 22.58 seconds for the opening quarter, 45.82 for a half, and 1:10.16 for six furlongs. At that point, the previously unbeaten Ocean Terrace stopped suddenly, and faded to last.

"He pulled up fine, but we have to find out what caused his distress at the half-mile," said his jockey, Kent Desormeaux.

Indian Express led nearing the top of the stretch, but then Buddy Gil and Kafwain engaged him. Atswhatimtalknbout, who hopped slightly leaving the gate, also started to close rapidly while at least four paths wide.

When the field turned into the stretch, Indian Express and Buddy Gil went on, while both Kafwain and, especially, Atswhatimtalknbout, began to flatten out.

"On the turn he picked it up like he was going to make his move, but he didn't sustain it," said Ron Ellis, who trains Atswhatimtalknbout.

Buddy Gil led narrowly with a furlong remaining, but Indian Express surged again nearing the wire.

Stevens said Buddy Gil coughed after the race. "I think he took a lot of dirt," he said. "I think that's why he hung with me the last sixteenth."

Buddy Gil later bled through his nostrils in the post-race test barn.

Stevens won the Santa Anita Derby for the ninth time since 1988. "It didn't dawn on me until I pulled up after the race, and then I said, 'Wow,' " Stevens said.

Buddy Gil, a 3-year-old gelding by Eastern Echo, has won all three of his starts since being transferred to trainer Jeff Mullins. He is owned by Scott Guenther, Charlie Johnson, Donnie McFadden, Tom Schriber, and Rogers Seversen

"We're just all sitting here in awe," Mullins said. "Gary's been confident in him from the beginning. He just keeps getting better and better. If he gets a couple of notches better, we'll be in good shape."

The Santa Anita Derby was run on a clear, brisk spring day. The large crowd included Steven Spielberg, the famed Hollywood producer and director who is part of a group that last month bought a minority share in Atswhatimtalknbout from majority owner B. Wayne Hughes.

* After entering and being scratched from three stakes in March, Western Pride finally launched his 2003 campaign in the $150,000 San Bernardino Handicap.

Western Pride's hard-earned victory made his comeback after a 10-month layoff worth the wait. Ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, Western Pride ($10) had an ideal trip, stalking the pace to early stretch and holding off a stubborn Total Impact to win by a neck.

* Heat Haze ($7.60) gave her backers a few anxious moments in the $110,000 Las Cienegas Handicap, but her jockey, Jose Valdivia Jr., was never worried.

Racing behind several horses in early stretch, Heat Haze rallied wide when the field crossed over the dirt and onto the main turf course, found space between rivals, and won the hillside turf sprint for fillies and mares by a convincing three lengths.

"I was in the perfect spot," Valdivia said. "Once we crossed the dirt, I made a straight line and got through. She was much the best."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen