03/19/2008 11:00PM

Boule d'Or has familiar look to him


ARCADIA, Calif. - For starters, he sounds like a Jeff Mullins horse, right out of Mullins's old rodeo lore.

Greenhorn: "What's that over there?"

Cowboy: "That's the door where the bull comes out."

Greenhorn: "What do they call it?"

Cowboy: "What do you think they call it? It's the Bull Door."

Only this guy spells it Boule d'Or, and it's pronounced like you've got a mouth full of truffles. In French, it means "golden bowl," but on Saturday at Santa Anita, in the $200,000 San Luis Rey Handicap, Boule d'Or translates into reasonably live longshot to get a piece of the 1 1/2-mile event against a field that includes course specialists On the Acorn and Obrigado.

The San Luis Rey, a 57-year-old race, had a string of 28 runnings in which all male starters carried level weights of 122 to 126 pounds, and the results were taken seriously. Big Spruce beat Cougar II. Astray beat Big Spruce. The Scandinavian wonder horse Noble Dancer took it twice, and so did John Henry, while other winners included Belmont champ Avatar, Horse of the Year Kotashaan, turf champion Perrault, and Dahlia's sons Dahar and Rivlia.

Those days have gone, and the San Luis Rey is a plain old handicap again, which means the results won't mean much on a national scale unless the winner goes on to greater things.

Recent winners have been a mixed bag. California-bred Continental Red, the winner in 2002, seemed to run forever, but never won another big one. Meteor Storm (2004) and King's Drama (2006) carried their form to major wins in New York. Stanley Park, who defeated Meteor Storm in 2005, went wrong before he could repeat his big performance. And Champion Lodge, who won the San Luis Rey over a waterlogged course in 2003, was later discovered in a Colorado feed lot on his way to an Illinois slaughterhouse.

(Champion Lodge, it should be noted, is alive and reasonably well today thanks to pre-vet student Margaret De Sarno, who rescued him from that feed lot and has cared for the former San Luis Rey winner for the past year.)

If nothing else, Boule d'Or bears at least a glancing resemblance to the Cinderella gelding On the Acorn, winner last year of the San Luis Obispo Handicap and a close third to Fourty Niners Son in the San Luis Rey. Both are age 7 and bred over there, On the Acorn in England and Boule d'Or in Ireland. Both enjoyed modest success in stakes competition before descending into claiming events. And both were eventually claimed, quite by coincidence, from trainer Paddy Gallagher.

In the case of On the Acorn, Gallagher had him for just a single start before losing him to Mike Mitchell and a partnership for $40,000. Following last year's San Luis Rey, On the Acorn went on to win the San Juan Capistrano and the Jim Murray Memorial at Hollywood Park before getting a long vacation. He returned with a third in this year's San Luis Obispo on Feb. 23.

Boule d'Or had 39 starts abroad before joining the Gallagher stable in late 2006. He ran a big one right off the bat in the Thunder Road Handicap at Santa Anita in early 2007, then found himself tossed in against the likes of Kip Deville, Stormin Away, and On the Acorn in subsequent starts.

When Boule d'Or popped up in a $50,000 claiming race on Jan. 20, owner Bob Bone was intrigued. Mullins liked his looks as well, and they got him.

"I liked his numbers," said Bone, who ramrods one of California's most aggressive claiming stables. "And I'd noticed that the longer grass races in California haven't been coming up all that deep. I was always kind of upset that I didn't have a horse for them, so I was on the lookout for something."

In his first start for Bone, along with partners Jim Robinson and Don Johnson, Boule d'Or showed an unusual turn of early foot to go wire to wire and win a high-priced claiming race at 1 1/4 miles on Feb. 29. Bone gave significant credit to Victor Espinoza.

"Horses change over time," Bone said. "Victor said he'd been taking him back for his former connections, but that he thought the horse might like to run along a little more the first part. He was right."

Espinoza is sticking with his old pal On the Acorn for the San Luis Rey, leaving Boule d'Or to Tyler Baze, who rode him once for Gallagher. The horse is also undergoing another change in the trainer's line, since Boule d'Or's recent win was in the name of Mullins's long-time assistant Ral Ayers.

The Ayers era lasted barely three weeks, while Mullins was serving a 20-day suspension for a mepivacaine positive dating back to July 2006. There were a handful of losers at first, prompting Ayers to crack that he would have done better if "the guy that had them before had got them fit." In the end, while Mullins was grounded Ayers won five races, leading an owner like Bone to detect no appreciable difference in service.

"I was hoping Ral would give me a break in his price," Bone said. "But no luck. He charged the same as Mullins."