03/03/2004 1:00AM

Buddy tries to buck history


ARCADIA, Calif. - At first glance, it doesn't seem like such a big deal, winning the Santa Anita Derby and the Santa Anita Handicap. It's the same racetrack, after all, with only a furlong's difference between the two, and more often than not the Derby winner lives and trains just down the the stable road. So if a horse is good enough to win the Derby in April of his 3-year-old season, why should it be so hard to replicate that form in the Handicap just 11 months later?

In fact, it is a rare accomplishment, occurring with only slightly more frequency than a Triple Crown winner, or a president from Massachusetts. Since 1935, when both the Derby and the Handicap were part of Santa Anita's inaugural season, just seven horses have been good enough to win them both. On Saturday, Buddy Gil will try to make it eight.

Those magnificent seven offer a variety of tales. In 1938, when 3-year-olds were admitted to the Handicap, Stagehand won both big events. He beat three classmates in the Derby on Feb. 22, then came back two weeks later to edge Seabiscuit in the $100,000 Handicap, while getting a 30-pound pull in the weights.

Two decades passed before Terrang became the second horse to turn the trick, winning the 1956 Derby and then, in his second try, the 1959 Handicap. Then came Hill Rise, who dominated the 1964 Derby, and Lucky Debonair, likewise in 1965. As 4-year-olds they were every bit as impressive in their Handicaps.

After that, there was another long gap before Affirmed blew away the 1978 Derby and the 1979 Handicap. For the next 20 years, Santa Anita Derby winners were rarely heard from as 4-year-olds.

In 1980, Flying Paster gave valiant chase to Spectacular Bid through driving, icy rain. Snow Chief ran a tired fifth to Broad Brush and Ferdinand in 1987. But through the 1990's, not a single Santa Anita Derby winner made it to the Handicap until Free House stepped up to take the prize in 1999.

The last horse to win both races was General Challenge in 1999 and 2000. Like Buddy Gil, General Challenge was a gelding who tried the Kentucky Derby and suffered through a rotten experience. He survived, however, winning the 1999 Pacific Classic, and he went into the 2000 Santa Anita Handicap off a strong score in the Strub.

Buddy Gil, on the other hand, has had anything but smooth sailing since he emerged as the working-class hero of the 23 Santa Anita Derby, carrying his fun-loving collection of owners to giddy heights and putting trainer Jeff Mullins on the map. That was then. Today, as he prepares to meet Pleasantly Perfect in the million-dollar Handicap, he is just another 4-year-old who still has a lot to prove.

In many ways, Buddy Gil stands as a vivid example of why there have been only seven Derby/Handicap winners in their history of 67 runnings. After winning his first race in October 2002 and running in six straight stakes, he went from his narrow victory in the local Derby on April 5, to a rowdy sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, to an operating table in Lexington, where Dr. Larry Bramlage removed bone chips from an ankle and a knee. Mullins concedes that the Kentucky Derby might have been a race too far.

"We had a feeling there was something going on in the ankle, but we didn't know about the knee," Mullins said. "Anyway, by the time he came out of the [Kentucky] Derby he was showing signs of fatigue. There was no sense injecting him and trying to go on to the Preakness and the Belmont."

While Buddy recuperated on the Kentucky farm of veterinarian Foster Northrop, the racing world passed him by. He finally resurfaced at the beginning of the Santa Anita meet in the Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs, but he was an uninspiring ninth that day, and then finished a troubled 10th in the subsequent Strub Stakes.

"That race was just a disaster, and he was mad," Mullins said. "But not near as mad as his owners and his trainer."

The official chart of the Feb. 7 Strub Stakes notes that Buddy Gil "steadied hard off heels into the first turn," one of several trouble lines in a wild rodeo of a race.

"I looked at Buddy Gil's trip again the next day," Equibase chart caller Mike Schneider said. "Believe me, I could have written a whole lot more, it was that bad."

Fortunately for all concerned, the horse has not held a grudge. According to his rider, Gary Stevens, he worked like his old self Wednesday morning, and Mullins said he thinks that Buddy Gil is finally sporting the right combination of hair coat and attitude. If body language means anything, Buddy is loose and happy, rolling around his stall after his Wednesday work, gawking out his window, and nipping at his red and white Mullins webbing.

"I was hoping for a clear trip in the Strub so we knew where we stood," Mullins said, shaking his head. "But he got as much out of that race as he did out of the Malibu, which wasn't much at all. So this will be a little like starting over . . . in the Santa Anita Handicap."