05/05/2005 12:00AM

Mullins focusing on the track, not the talk

Jeff Mullins, his roots in Utah's bush tracks, has his fourth straight Kentucky Derby starter.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Three years ago, in a rush to prepare for his first Kentucky Derby, a small detail caught trainer Jeff Mullins by surprise.

"What should I wear?" he asked a visitor to his Santa Anita barn. "Should I wear a sport coat?"

He did, but since then it's safe to say Mullins' life has drastically changed - and so has his wardrobe.

When Mullins starts Buzzards Bay in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, he will be dressed for the occasion.

"I haven't decided if I'm wearing my yuppie uniform or my cowboy uniform," he said last weekend.

Mullins, 42, has a foot in both worlds. He operates a leading stable in Southern California, with clients from throughout the country. At the same time, he is most comfortable in a pair of boots and jeans, a throwback to his youth in Utah.

To the racing public, Mullins has been a controversial figure.

This year, he became the first trainer to win three consecutive Santa Anita Derbies when Buzzards Bay pulled an upset on April 9.

That milestone has been overshadowed by other events. In January, Mullins had a horse test positive for an excessive amount of sodium bicarbonate, an infraction that gave rival trainers plenty of ammunition against the relative newcomer. The penalty required that Mullins's starters over the following 30 days be quarantined for a 24-hour period before their races in a security barn.

In the aftermath of that incident, Mullins, in a newspaper column, called bettors addicts and idiots. Mullins emphatically stated that the comments were taken out of context and they were directed only at the columnist and not the general public. Still, the damage to Mullins's public persona was done.

Through it all, Mullins has said the incidents have not fazed him. "If I let these people get me down, where am I going to go?" he said. "I can't worry about it. I knew what happened and I knew in my mind I had a job to do. You have to keep coming to work."

But after Buzzards Bay pulled an upset in the Santa Anita Derby, Mullins said in a press conference that "it gives me a lot of satisfaction" to win that race. He then pointed to his heart and said, "I know how it feels right here, and that's all I care about."

To Bill Bianco, a co-owner of Buzzards Bay and a commissioner of the California Horse Racing Board, the discussions surrounding Mullins have become old.

"I wish people would put it behind them," Bianco said on Santa Anita Derby Day.

The episodes of the last three months are quite a change from Mullins's roots in Utah or even when he started training full-time in Southern California in the winter of 2001-02. Mullins grew up racing on the bush-track circuit in Utah that included Dixie Downs, Laurel Brown Track, American Fork, and Marysville.

"I think the best memories I have are back home when racing was fun," he said. "You ran for no money. It was fun to go and fun to watch your horses grow.

"There were all those little half-mile tracks. If a jock didn't show up, I just rode them myself. It was fun. At the end of the day, you go home and have a barbecue and have fun with your friends."

After arriving in Southern California from Turf Paradise, where he had been leading trainer, in late 2001, Mullins and his wife, Amy, decreased the number of horses in their barn from 45 to 12. They were a little more than a mom-and-pop operation when Lusty Latin finished 15th in the 2002 Kentucky Derby.

Today, Mullins has 55 horses. Amy still works as an exercise rider, and the couple of have two boys, ages 4 and 6.

"I've got the pressures of raising a family now, rising costs of workers' compensation, 40 employees," Mullins said. "It has given us a better life, allowed us to buy a bigger house."

Buzzards Bay represents the stable's fourth consecutive year of having a starter in the Kentucky Derby, and arguably its best chance.

"Lusty Latin, we knew he was a longshot. The guys just wanted to go," Mullins said. "Buddy Gil was starting to tail off by the time we got there. Castledale was a turf horse and he was plagued by feet problems."

Mullins insists he does not listen to the critics - of his barn or his Derby contender.

"Why worry about everyone else," he said. "My horse earned his way there. We'll take him there and give him an opportunity. He hasn't missed any training through the rain. We're fortunate to have a sound horse that I think is getting better."