03/30/2004 12:00AM

Key to success: Don't act your age

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Benoit & Associates
Two years into her training career, Kristin Mulhall, 21, has a Kentucky Derby hopeful in stakes winner Imperialism.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Kristin Mulhall grew up riding show horses, so she is used to clearing hurdles. And plenty have been placed before her, both real and perceived, since she decided to become a racehorse trainer.

She is just 21 - and was a mere 19 when she took out her trainer's license nearly two years ago - so she has had to fight the assumption that she is inexperienced. As a woman in a male-dominated world, particularly on the insular backstretch, she had to endure wolf-whistles and catcalls from stablehands. Even her family placed obstacles in her way.

Mulhall's father, Richard, a former trainer who became the president of The Thoroughbred Corp., was initially against his daughter following this career path, and did nothing to help her at first. Yet the perception is that, because of his name and connections, he helped open doors that otherwise would have slammed in his daughter's face.

In her quiet, determined way, Mulhall flicks off those issues as though they were lint. A slightly built woman, she has a high-pitched, girlish voice that grows an octave lower, and resonates with seriousness, when discussing her work.

"I don't care what other people think," she said in a personable, not confrontational, manner. "I just try to go about my own business."

That business plan has worked. Mulhall has surely, steadily assembled a 42-horse stable that includes several stakes winners. But the horse of the moment in the barn is Imperialism, a 3-year-old colt who has won two stakes races since joining Mulhall's stable and will go for the hat trick in Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

Should Imperialism win, Mulhall will be headed to the Kentucky Derby, and with a chance to become the youngest trainer to win that race. The record is held by James Rowe Sr., who was 24 when Hindoo won in 1881.

"She has the talent of Willie Mays playing baseball," said Mulhall's biggest booster, Steve Taub, who owns Imperialism.

It was Taub - who owns a Porsche and Audi dealership in Santa Monica - who gave Mulhall her first big break with racehorses. He persuaded Mulhall to start training on her own two years ago by transferring several horses to her care.

"She's honest, diligent, strong, yet very girly, very feminine, and very sweet," Taub said. "She's as sweet as can be, and she's like a grizzled 40-year-old businessman. She doesn't drink, she doesn't do dope, and she doesn't gamble."

What she does do is work. And work. And work some more. Mulhall gallops anywhere from eight to 15 of her horses every morning, starting first at Hollywood Park, where she has the bulk of her stable, then dashing over to Santa Anita. She gets on Imperialism every morning.

Mulhall said Imperialism has improved because of increased strength in his hind end, and with the adjustment of blinkers. Imperialism has a sunken right eye socket - the result, Mulhall theorizes, of a hoof resting there while he was in utero - that prevents the colt from seeing behind him out of that eye. So, Mulhall outfitted Imperialism with a full-cup blinker on that eye, while leaving the left eye unobstructed. She has also worked on building up Imperialism's hind end, a focus of her overall regimen.

"I jog them. I don't gallop much," Mulhall said. "He's got a big hind end, with a big crease in his butt. That's where they get their power from. If you jog a horse with his head up, it puts pressure on his back. But if you do it with his head down, you can build up his hind end. It's a lot of dressage-type work. That comes from my being around the show-horse world."

Mulhall was a well-known rider. She began riding when she was 5 years old, and progressed to be a member of the U.S. Junior Olympic team. Had she continued down that path, she very well might have ended up an Olympic rider.

Fate, however, intervened. In June 2001, Mulhall punctured her arm on a nail in a tack room, and her arm became infected. While recuperating that summer, she hung out at Del Mar racetrack, a place that was familiar from her days of accompanying her father to the races when he trained. That fall, she galloped horses for trainer John Shirreffs. Seven months later, after a chance meeting with Taub at Clocker's Corner at Santa Anita, she went out on her own as a trainer. By the next summer at Del Mar, she had a dozen runners.

"When I was riding show horses, I never thought I'd leave," she said. "Now that I'm here, I'll never go back."

Her father was against the change.

"I tried to discourage her," Richard Mulhall said. "It's a tough business to make money in, and she was making good money with the show horses, buying and selling them."

"He fought it and fought it," Kristin Mulhall said.

Oh, did they fight. Mulhall moved out of her dad's house. But she had the wherewithal to go along with her determination. As a teenager, Mulhall had built up a little nest egg buying and selling show horses. "You can buy a lot of show horses in England and Germany that are not quite Grand Prix there, and sell them for good money here as hunters or for equitation," she said. With that money, she bought a house in Monrovia, Calif.

"I'm hard-headed," she said.

And she is mature beyond her years.

"How many 19-year-old kids have bought their own house without having someone else co-sign?" her father said.

At home, Mulhall is surrounded by animals. She has six dogs, ranging from a Great Dane to a Chihuahua. She also has a bird that mimics Mulhall telling it to "shut up."

Parties, and other frivolity, don't enter her life. Mulhall took correspondence courses when her show-horse riding took her away from her Pasadena high school on long weekends. Just as when she was a child, visiting the track with her father, she still finds herself more comfortable around adults.

"I've always hung out with an older group," she said.

No, she does not act her age at all, and that maturity has contributed mightily to her success. Older adults say they are as young as they feel. Mulhall is as old as she acts.