Updated on 09/17/2011 10:10AM

Hunting ducks, they bag Buddy Gil

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Buddy Gil, winner of the San Felipe, could take his owners all the way to the Kentucky Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It's a long way from the Baldwin Stakes to the Santa Anita Derby. It's also a long way from tiny Hagerman, Idaho, to Southern California. But Buddy Gil knows the way.

The tough, unheralded 3-year-old gelding was overlooked when he won the Baldwin Stakes, a turf sprint, at 26-1 on Feb. 23. He was a 9-1 shot when he won the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes two weeks ago. And next week, he will try to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby, when he goes for his third straight victory in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby.

His odyssey has been a revelation to the five men who formed a partnership while duck hunting two years ago. Some had known each other beforehand, but not until that trip were all five together. They shared a common interest in racing - it's the principal business for two of them - and their fateful trip to Idaho has brought them one race away from the Kentucky Derby.

"He's been a huge surprise, and you can underline huge," Donnie McFadden said Wednesday. It was a typical day for McFadden. He was hauling a mare to a clinic that is about 1 1/2 hours from his Billingsley Creek Ranch in Hagerman. With nothing else to do but stare at the road and listen to the radio, he had plenty of time to talk on the phone, but warned, "There's a lot of dead zones up here."

Hagerman is where the 64-year-old McFadden moved his family 33 years ago from Orange County, Calif. "I wanted the kids to grow up in a rural environment," he said. Mission accomplished. The population is "about 800," he said.

"The city limit signs are back to back," said Scott Guenther, one of the co-owners of Buddy Gil.

McFadden's 715-acre ranch was the home to stallions Murrtheblurr and Staff Writer in the 1980's. McFadden was mostly involved in Quarter Horse racing initially, but gravitated to Thoroughbreds, his breed of choice since the mid-1980's. His mares, including the For Really mare Really Rising, are on the property.

Really Rising is the dam of Buddy Gil. She was bred to Eastern Echo, and dropped the foal in Kentucky. Mare and foal returned to Idaho soon thereafter.

Two years ago, McFadden played host to Guenther, Charlie Johnson, Rogers Seversen, and Tom Schriber - all of whom live in Newport Beach or Corona Del Mar, Calif. - on a duck-hunting trip on his property. Guenther, 51, retired last May after selling his company, Fabrica International, which made high-end carpeting and area rugs; managing his stable of horses is his primary job now. Johnson is the former vice chairman of Wells Fargo Bank. Schriber develops shopping centers, and Seversen develops industrial buildings.

On that trip, the five decided to partner on two horses who would be 2 the following year. It was agreed that McFadden would choose the two from among the yearlings he was about to break to saddle. "He said he'd put in his two best," Guenther said. "He'd put in the sweat and work, and we'd put up the money. We're all 20-percent partners."

One of the horses chosen was Buddy Gil, who is named for Tom Gilmer, a close friend of McFadden from their days at the University of Redlands.

Buddy Gil last year was sent to trainer Chuck Jenda in northern California.

"He's always been very easy to be around. He's a mellow, laid-back colt," McFadden said. "Chuck said if he doesn't want to run, he's so calm you could take him deer hunting."

Buddy Gil finished third in his debut, second in his next start, then scored victories against maidens at Bay Meadows and in a minor stakes race at Golden Gate Fields. After two poor races on off tracks at Golden Gate, however, he was sent to Southern California, and trainer Jeff Mullins.

"He didn't like an off track, and we wanted to try him on grass," Guenther said. "Donnie has a horse named Lookn East with Jeff who has done well on grass and is by Eastern Echo, too. That's how Jeff got Buddy."

Mullins tried to run Buddy Gil in an allowance race, but when it would not fill, he was resigned to making Buddy Gil try turf for the first time in a stakes race. He rallied for a two-length victory in the Baldwin under jockey Gary Stevens, who had known both McFadden and Mullins when his career was beginning in Boise, Idaho.

"He ran so huge, and got such a high speed number," Guenther said, referring to Buddy Gil's 106 Beyer Speed Figure in the Baldwin. "We thought he deserved a chance in the San Felipe. Both times that Gary has ridden the horse, in the Baldwin and the San Felipe, he has gotten off the horse and said he didn't get to the bottom of him. That makes us very, very optimistic that he can get a mile and an eighth, though you never know until you try."

If Buddy Gil heads to the Kentucky Derby, it will be the second straight year Guenther will have a horse in the race. His Desperado Stable - named after a song by the Eagles, Guenther's favorite band - owned Easy Grades, who was second in last year's Santa Anita Derby before finishing 13th in the Kentucky Derby. Guenther also owns the wickedly fast sprinter Freespool.

"The Derby experience is impossible to explain," Guenther said. "It's bigger and better than you'd ever believe. But I learned that you've got to take it day-to-day, and not get too far ahead.

"I've been following the horses the better part of my adult life. I always said I didn't want to go to the Kentucky Derby unless I had a horse in the race, and there was a very good chance I wasn't going to ever go with that kind of prerequisite," he said, laughing. "It was an incredible experience. Buddy's come through a lot, but if he keeps on going, I'd look forward to going back to Churchill Downs."