Updated on 09/17/2011 1:10PM

Make way for the Buddy Gil brigade

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Cue up the theme from "Rocky," get out those duck calls, and make room in the Santa Anita parking lot for all the trucks from Idaho. Buddy Gil is back.

The Santa Anita Derby winner, who became the West Coast's leading 3-year-old by scoring upsets in three straight stakes races after moving to the barn of Jeff Mullins, makes his first start since the Kentucky Derby in Friday's Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, the feature race on the opening-day card at Santa Anita. This will be the first step Buddy Gil takes toward re-staking his claim as one of the best runners in Southern California.

If nothing else, last spring he was fast becoming the most popular. A plain-looking, bay-colored son of Eastern Echo who was born in Kentucky but raised in Idaho, Buddy Gil was Funny Cide before there was Funny Cide. He is a gelding, a regional sensation, is owned by several buddies who don't have prince or sheikh preceding their name, and wins races seemingly by sheer force of will more so than raw, innate talent. So many people stuffed themselves into the winner's circle following the Santa Anita Derby that there was barely enough room for Buddy Gil.

Donnie McFadden, who bred Buddy Gil in the name of his Billingsley Creek Ranch and is one of his co-owners, called Buddy Gil "a huge surprise, and you can underline huge."

In the Kentucky Derby, Buddy Gil went off at 7-1, the fourth choice in the 16-horse field. But he finished sixth, and emerged from the race with injuries that necessitated arthroscopic surgery and a lengthy recovery.

"He had a chip in his left front ankle," Mullins said. "Because he's a gelding, he was going to do us a lot better down the road than if we'd have gone on to the Preakness and Belmont. We decided to rest him up and save him. He also had a spur on his right knee, so while he was down we took that out, too.

"I really think, going into the Derby, we had already worn our horse out. We had a ride we never could have believed. We'd gotten that far, so the idea of not going to the Derby wasn't in anyone's vocabulary. He was doing fine until his last work, and then he started to have some heat in the ankle. He also had lost a little weight, but of course we were in denial - 'He's just getting fitter.' He had a little bad luck in the race, but he still ran good."

After the surgery, Buddy Gil remained in Kentucky, at the farm of veterinarian Dr. Foster Northrop, until rejoining Mullins's barn in September. After a month of walking under tack at the barn, then 15 days of jogging, Buddy Gil began galloping and then picked up the pace with regular workouts.

The drills, Mullins said, have been "really good," but Mullins is being cautiously optimistic as to how well Buddy Gil will come back. His apprehension is based on the experience of his previous Kentucky Derby runner, Lusty Latin. He was not as accomplished as Buddy Gil in the spring of his 3-year-old year; nevertheless, he was never the same after the Derby.

"All he gets is hot and dirty now," Mullins said. "I'm hoping that won't be the case with Buddy. In the back of my mind, I know he's still that good, but realistically you hope he is. Lusty Latin was training as good as he ever did when he came back, but in the afternoons, he wasn't there. When you load them in the gate in the afternoon, that's when you find out."

The seven-furlong Malibu is the first step, Mullins hopes, toward some big-game hunting in the next few months. Races such as the Strub Stakes, Santa Anita Handicap, and Dubai World Cup are targets.

"I want to win the Malibu, but I'm just hoping for a good trip, that he gets plenty out of it, he performs as well as he did in the spring, and he comes back in one piece," Mullins said. "There's a lot of options with him. We can use this as a tightener. Hopefully he runs well, and we move on to bigger and better things."

Mullins said Buddy Gil has grown up a bit in the past seven months. "He's a little bigger horse. A little more mature," Mullins said. "He's always been a good-sized horse. He's gotten a little taller, and he's a little coarser than he used to be."

Buddy Gil has been a windfall to everyone connected with him. His owners - McFadden, Scott Guenther, Charlie Johnson, Tom Schriber, and Rogers Seversen - formed the partnership while on a duck-hunting trip at McFadden's 715-acre ranch in Hagerman, Idaho. For them, Buddy Gil has earned $729,455.

Buddy Gil began his career with trainer Chuck Jenda in northern California, but he blossomed after moving to Mullins's barn at Santa Anita 11 months ago. Buddy Gil's ascension, coupled with Mullins's high win percentage, helped grow the stable of the 40-year-old trainer. Mullins now has 27 horses at Hollywood Park and another 34 at Santa Anita. On Sunday, he nailed down his first major title in Southern California, winning the Hollywood Park fall meeting.

"We've pretty much doubled in size since the first week in May," Mullins said. "He's helped us quite a bit. There's an old saying that a bomb can go off in anyone's hands. For me, he's been pretty special - to get a horse like him, then go to the Derby with a horse you feel has a chance."

Buddy Gil also was the highlight of the spring for jockey Gary Stevens, who picked up the mount on Buddy Gil in between his work on the movie "Seabiscuit." Stevens says he has other entertainment projects in the formative stages, but for the time being, at least, he will keep his day job. Stevens took a break after the Breeders' Cup, but Buddy Gil hastened his return, Mullins said.

"Gary had told me he wasn't going to be ready to ride in the Malibu," Mullins said. "I thought it would be neat if I could get Jerry Bailey. His agent, Ron Anderson, told me he usually spends Christmas with his family. But when Bailey rode at Hollywood Park last month for the Turf Festival, he worked Buddy one morning. He said, in so many words, that he'd love to ride him, but he'd rather stay married.

"So then I called Gary and asked for his recommendation. He suggested Tyler Baze. Then we got to talking more about Buddy, and by the end of the conversation, Gary was on the horse. He's worked him three times. After the first work, he said, 'Name me on.' "

At a glance: Santa Anita

* RACING SCHEDULE: Friday through April 18. Dark Mondays and Tuesdays, except Dec. 29, Jan. 19, and Feb. 16.

* POST TIME: 1 p.m., weekdays; 12:30 p.m., weekends, holidays and Monday's; noon, opening day, Jan. 24, Feb. 7, March 6 and April 3; 11 a.m. Feb. 1; 3 p.m, April 9 and 16.

* ADMISSIONS: General $5; Clubhouse $8.50; Turf Club and John Henry Room $15; General parking $4, preferred $6, valet $10.

* LOCATION: 285 W. Huntington Dr., Arcadia. South of 210 (Foothill Freeway), east of Baldwin Ave.

* PHONE: (626) 574-7223.

* INTERNET: http://www.santaanita.com