04/04/2004 11:00PM

A long, strange Derby trip

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Late last Saturday afternoon, Amy Mullins finally made it back to her husband's barn, soaking wet from a sudden downpour and still giddy from a combination of Castledale's victory in the Santa Anita Derby and the contact high from the postrace crowd that was rocking in the paddock to reggae star Ziggy Marley.

"Man," said Mullins, shaking out her streaked blond locks, "there's a lot of weed over there!"

No, really? And I thought that smell was cleaning solvent.

But what better way was there for Santa Anita to celebrate the biggest parimutuel shocker in the history of its marquee 3-year-old race? Reality was already altered by Castledale's $62 surprise, with the Kentucky Derby picture rendered as weird as a bad acid trip. After all that has happened on the Triple Crown trail this spring, what's a little mary-jane air freshener on a damp spring evening? Seabiscuit, meet Cheech and Chong.

Emerging from the mist is a trio of leading men who will lend a distinctly irreverent flair to the proceedings in Louisville. Jeff Mullins trains Castledale, with considerable assistance from Amy as lead exercise rider, while the ownership consists of Greg Knee, a Southern California native with just four years in the business, and Frank Lyons, TVG commentator, former trainer, amateur footballer, and all-around Irishman.

Lyons bought the Irish-bred Castledale last September in Ireland and sold 85 percent of him to Knee, while it was Knee who brought Mullins into the picture from their days of racing in Arizona.

As a couple, they are definitely odd. Lyons is racing's answer to Roger Moore, and an adept practitioner of Irish diplomacy (defined as the ability to tell a man to go to hell so that he looks forward to making the trip). Knee defers to his glib partner, sports a droopy Sam Elliott moustache, and perpetually grins at what must be the world's funniest inside joke.

Knee watched the Derby from a staircase in the clubhouse, leaning against a railing, with his legs turning to jelly as Castledale and jockey Jose Valdivia attacked the massive Rock Hard Ten in the final furlong to win by a head. When they hit the wire, Knee's knees collapsed and he slid to the steps moaning, "I don't believe it. I don't believe it." The mutuel tickets in his pocket, worth more than $18,000, snapped him back to reality, along with a tense, 12-minute inquiry that eventually moved Rock Hard Ten from second to third.

"I'm tongue-tied," said Knee, who shares racing with his wife, Terylann. "I must be dreaming."

Lyons, meanwhile, watched from a box with friends, danced a jig with his wife, Jodi, and hugged everyone he could reach. Within the next few minutes, the popular lad from County Meath had upwards of 30 calls on his phone.

"That one was from the boys in Ireland," Lyons said. "Needless to say, they don't like to let a Santa Anita Derby winner go. But they're happy he's done them proud."

Mullins got his share of calls as well (his phone chimes the opening notes of "Layla"), but for him the Santa Anita Derby is becoming old hat. The trainer also won the 2003 version with Buddy Gil, and while winning back-to-back Santa Anita Derbies has been done before, until now you had to be named Jimmy Jones, Mesh Tenney, Robert Wheeler, Wayne Lukas, or Bob Baffert to get the job done.

Mullins, who just turned 41, sported a blue suit and tie last year for the 6-1 Buddy Gil. This time around, he turned up in tan Wranglers, boots, a polo shirt, and a horseshoe belt buckle the size of a Camaro's air filter. Never has a Santa Anita Derby-winning trainer looked more comfortable.

"This is what you wear when you're 30-1," Mullins said. "Only I didn't think he should be 30-1."

Mullins prides himself on running horses where they belong, and his steady win rate of 20 to 25 percent indicates he gets it right. His two other winners on the Derby undercard both scored by daylight at odds-on.

Castledale's 30-1 grew out of the public's interpretation of his one and only dirt race. After eight starts on turf, including a victory in the Generous Stakes at Hollywood Park last November, Castledale finished eighth in the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on March 6. Conclusion: He couldn't handle the main track.

"In fact, he's a better work horse on the dirt," Mullins noted. "I missed a little time with him before the San Rafael, then after the race I worked him back on the grass. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. So I worked him again on the dirt, and he was like a different horse."

Lyons bore witness.

"Look, if you forgive his last race, he's never run a bad one," Lyons said. "And to watch him on dirt, Jeff is right. He just cruises along, hardly lifting his feet."

Entertaining as they may be, the three Castledale caballeros have got nothing on the little horse who will take them to Kentucky.

Castledale is a pocket rocket who doesn't know he stands barely 15 hands. They keep him caged in the far, calm corner of the Mullins barn, behind a metal grate that mostly protects the rest of the world from Castledale. Gustavo "Tavo" Barrera is his careful groom, ready for anything, because Castledale will use you for a chew toy or throw a leg over his red-and-white webbing faster than you can say Molly Malone.

"Look at this," said Mullins assistant Cole Jackson as he pointed to the side of the stall opening. "He pulled at his webbing so hard he separated the metal bracket. We had to bolt the thing down again."

When led from his stall, Castledale announces his presence with squeals of mischievous intent. This is a four-legged Napoleon complex, libido in full bloom. Last November, before leaving the barn at Hollywood to run in the Generous, Mullins recalls that Castledale tried to breed "two hotwalkers and a hayrack."

So hide the impressionable children, alert the Louisville city fathers, and lay in an extra supply of Guinness. Castledale is coming to town, and his Irish is definitely up.