12/23/2004 12:00AM

Mullins cast in underdog role

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Castledale, with trainer Jeff Mullins, may be back for the Santa Anita meet.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Jeff Mullins was the leading trainer last year at Santa Anita, stopping the seven-year streak of Bob Baffert. He won the Santa Anita Derby with Castledale, his second straight victory in that race.

Mullins won 45 races in 166 starts for a strike rate of 27 percent. This fall, however, his percentage sagged, and Mullins is not certain he will be as effective the first part of Santa Anita's meet, even with Castledale nearing a comeback.

The problem, Mullins said, is that a number of his best horses - Captain Squire, Cayoke, Glick, King Robyn, and Summer Wind Dancer - went down with injuries the second half of the year.

"I know what everybody's saying: 'They're doing the testing. Aha, they got him,' " Mullins said, referring to recent testing for bicarbonate of soda. "But if they'd look at the horses I'm leading over there, they're not very good. I had 70 horses. Now I have 50. After Del Mar, it's been a steady spiral downward. Management just shrugs their shoulders. They're more worried about baking soda."

Mullins has been unhappy with the main tracks at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. "It's a different surface every day," he said. "They're consistently inconsistent. You don't know from one day to the next what type of track you're getting."

Mullins this past week had a promising 2-year-old colt by Fusaichi Pegasus taken from his care by Aaron Cohen, the racing manager for Earle Mack.

"We've had bad luck with injuries," Cohen said from New York. "It's been a tough road to hoe. Jeff was very understanding. If Jeff was going east, we'd keep the colt with Jeff. When I talk to him on the phone, you can hear in his voice a certain level of discomfort with the track. I respect him for telling me that."

Mullins looked into relocating part of his stable to Florida for the winter, but said he couldn't get enough of his owners to go along with the plan.

"I got stalls down there, but I gave them back," he said. "It just wasn't feasible."

Southern Image being eased back

Most of the winter meet will be gone by the time the Santa Anita horse of the meet from 2003-2004 returns. Southern Image jump-started his campaign last winter at Santa Anita by winning the opening-day Malibu Stakes and followed with wins in a pair of million-dollar races - the Santa Anita Handicap and Sunshine Millions. But he has not raced since June 12, and trainer Mike Machowsky is in no rush.

Southern Image has remained at the track since his last start, but nagging ailments with his feet and hind- end have prevented a return. Machowsky said the Grade 3 Tokyo City Handicap (formerly the San Bernardino Handicap) on April 2 is the first goal. "We're working back from the Breeders' Cup," Machowsky said, adding that Southern Image's 5-year-old campaign could include the Pacific Classic and end in the BC Classic on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park.

Machowsky said Southern Image will resume jogging Jan. 15, and he expects Southern Image to return in top form.

"He's won every time he returned from a layoff, so I'm not worried," Machowsky said.

Southern Image has won 6 of his 8 starts and earned $1,843,750. Even without the big horse, Machowsky said he expects a strong winter. He has high expectations for unraced 2-year-old filly Heavenly Dowry and French import Daryamar. A son of Machiavellian, Daryamar runs Sunday in a two-other-than allowance and may try dirt Jan. 15 in the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes.

New faces among jockey colony

Perhaps hoping they can emulate Rene Douglas, who came to Southern California this fall and promptly rocketed up the jockeys' standings, several riders have relocated to Southern California for Santa Anita's winter meeting.

Mark Guidry is the best-known and most-accomplished of the newcomers. A 45-year-old veteran who is based in Kentucky, Guidry usually goes to Florida for the winter. But he and local agent Paul Truitt said they expect to have plenty of business right from the start from the likes of Mullins.

"I'd like to stay out here," said Guidry. "It all depends on how things go over the next four months. I'd love to put in five years here. It's beautiful. The weather's unbelievable. It's perfect riding weather."

Guidry has won 4,585 races during his career, and his mounts have earned $80,907,014. This year, he has won 118 races out of 772 mounts, for earnings of $3,830,045. He has not ridden since Nov. 7 at Churchill Downs, when he was one of 15 riders barred from the track for refusing to commit to upcoming mounts.

Guidry is living in nearby Pasadena, "a couple of blocks from where they do the Rose Parade," he said.

Dana Whitney, the leading rider at Mountaineer Racetrack, also has ventured west. Whitney, 34, has won 1,861 races during his career, 265 of them this year at Mountaineer.

"My whole racing career has been waiting for an opportunity like this," Whitney said. "My expectations are high. If you can better yourself, you're only cheating yourself if you don't take that opportunity. I'm in somebody else's turf now. I'd love to make it my own turf now."

Whitney's agent is former trainer Steve Trevino.

Both Guidry and Whitney are senators with the Jockeys' Guild.

Also new to the colony is Gregory Benoist, a 21-year-old native of France. Benoist is here for the winter.

Stewards deny Espinoza appeal

Jockey Victor Espinoza has lost his appeal of a seven-day suspension dating to the winter meet last year, and will begin the 2004-2005 meet mostly on the sidelines. Espinoza was disqualified in the Grade 2 Santa Ana Handicap on March 27, when Megahertz drifted inward at the top of the stretch, caused interference, and was placed seventh. Espinoza was handed a suspension, and exhausted the appeal process Wednesday.

Tony Matos, Espinoza's agent, said he learned one week ago that his appeal was denied. A last-ditch effort Wednesday to fight the ruling in court was unsuccessful.

"Not only did [stewards] punish me and Victor, they also punished all the trainers that didn't have time to get a competent rider," Matos said.

During the suspension, Espinoza can ride in designated races, including the Grade 1 Malibu on Sunday, when he is scheduled to ride Love of Money, and the Grade 1 La Brea on Monday, when he is scheduled to ride Bending Strings. Espinoza returns full time Jan. 3.

* Castledale worked six furlongs on the turf in 1:16 on Thursday morning.

* Chips Are Down and Spanish Chestnut, prepping for next month's San Rafael Stakes, both worked Thursday. Chips Are Down, trained by Bob Baffert, covered five furlongs in 1:01.80. Spanish Chestnut, trained by Patrick Biancone, worked six furlongs from the gate in 1:13.80. They ran one-two in a recent allowance race at Hollywood Park.

- additional reporting by Brad Free