08/29/2005 12:00AM

Mullins a hot topic - a good thing this time

Benoit & Associates
Trainer Jeff Mullins (center), with owner Murray Smith and Alex Solis after the Debutante.

DEL MAR, Calif. - In the past year, trainer Jeff Mullins has gone from being the hottest trainer on the circuit, to a lightning rod for controversy based on both a positive test for bicarbonates and intemperate comments attributed to him by a local columnist, to being the hottest trainer on the circuit. Heading into the final week of the Del Mar meet, Mullins leads the trainer standings, and captured last Saturday's Del Mar Debutante with Wild Fit.

Local racetracks now conduct testing for bicarbonates, euphemistically referred to as milkshakes. Mullins was ensnared in the controversy in January, but has not had a positive test since and has continued to win.

"If anybody asks anything about that, I just refer them to my attorney, Neil Papiano," Mullins said Monday morning at his Del Mar barn. "I just want to keep my mouth shut and keep on winning races."

Mullins finished second to Doug O'Neill at Del Mar last year, and they are battling with Bob Baffert for the title this year, with Mullins leading narrowly heading into the final week.

"We've been lucky up until the last couple of weeks," said Mullins, adding that some of his horses have developed foot or ankle problems. "I can't complain. I don't have that many left to run. What we did have were well spotted, and they fired."

One of Mullins's casualties was the top grass horse Castledale, who finished fourth in the Eddie Read Handicap on July 24. "His feet got to bothering him after he ran on the hard course, and training on this track didn't help him, so I got him out of here and sent him up to Santa Anita," said Mullins, who keeps a secondary string at Santa Anita while Del Mar is running.

Mullins said there is "a possibility" Castledale could make the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 8 at Santa Anita.

Wild Fit has taken Castledale's place as the stable's star. She came out of the Debutante in "excellent" condition, Mullins said. He had yet to decide on her next start, but the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park is her long-range goal.

"I haven't looked at anything yet," Mullins said. "We didn't expect to be in this position."

Kilkea Castle, Sarafan both okay

Both Kilkea Castle and Sarafan, who were vanned from the turf course following the Del Mar Handicap on Sunday, were reported in good shape by their respective trainers Monday morning.

Kilkea Castle, according to trainer David Hofmans, "just had a little heat prostration."

"It was too much for him," he said. "He got tired."

Sarafan, who was ridden by Alex Solis, was doing so well Monday morning that he went back to the track to train.

"He got bumped around, switched from his left lead to his right, and clipped heels of the horse in front of him and bobbled," said Neil Drysdale, who trains Sarafan. "Alex was worried and pulled him up, but he's fine."

Drysdale bemoaned Del Mar's decision to leave the rails set out 14 feet from their innermost position, thus tightening the course for the 10 horses who competed in the 1 3/8-mile grass race.

"It was too narrow," Drysdale said. "I don't know why they couldn't have moved it back in for that race."

Rock Hard Ten solid in works

Rock Hard Ten, the Santa Anita Handicap winner, has made such steady progress in his recent works that, according to trainer Richard Mandella, he is now well ahead of schedule for his return in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 1. Rock Hard Ten sped through seven furlongs in 1:23 on Sunday morning.

"We don't want to go into the Goodwood needing to get ready for the Breeders' Cup Classic," Mandella said. "He needs to be as ready as he can be. He's ahead of schedule, but that's a better way to be than the other. He hasn't had a bad day in three months."

Mandella gave Rock Hard Ten the summer off because "he stiffened up, and once we got to a certain point, it made sense to give him a break."

Apprentice Fong has concussion

Apprentice jockey Freddy Fong Jr., who fell from Silken Bonds in the last race on Sunday, suffered a concussion and was being kept for observation at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, his agent, Jim Pegram, said Monday.

Fong was near the back of the back when he fell off the horse. According to Pegram, "He lost an iron and was trying to adjust it, and the horse ducked out and left him hanging."

"He has a concussion, and they're going to take more X-rays, because they want to see if something else they saw is a new injury or old. They think it might be an old injury, but they want to be sure."

Stakes runners work out

Several horses scheduled to compete in stakes during the three-day holiday weekend worked on Monday morning at Del Mar, including Becrux and El Roblar, who took divisions of the Oceanside Stakes on opening day July 20 and are pointing for the Grade 2, $400,000 Del Mar Derby on turf on Monday.

Becrux, trained by Drysdale, traveled seven furlongs on the turf course in 1:29.40. Orange cones, known as dogs, were up. El Roblar, trained by Mandella, breezed six furlongs on the main track in 1:15.40. "He just went an easy six," Mandella said.

Willow O Wisp, the La Jolla Handicap winner, also tuned up for the Del Mar Derby, working six furlongs on turf in 1:15.20 for trainer Vladimir Cerin.

Intercontinental, who is scheduled to run in the Grade 2, $200,000 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap for female turf runners on Saturday, worked a half-mile in 49.80 seconds for Humberto Ascanio, who oversees trainer Bobby Frankel's West Coast string. She is scheduled for a rematch with Amorama, who upset Intercontinental in the John C. Mabee Handicap earlier in the meet. Amorama breezed five furlongs on turf in 1:02.60 on Monday.

Intercontinental on Monday was assigned top weight of 122 pounds for the Palomar, three more than Amorama, Hollywood Story, and Katdogawn.

* Three Valleys, scheduled to run in the Grade 2, $350,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap at one mile on turf Sunday, worked five furlongs on dirt in 1:02 for Ascanio. Wild Buddy, trained by Steve Knapp, worked a half-mile on the grass in 50.40 seconds.