Updated on 09/17/2011 11:23AM

Mullins magic no sleight of hand


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The trainers involved in the 129th Kentucky Derby include the most illustrious members of the profession - Bob Baffert, Wayne Lukas, and Bobby Frankel. But none of them has had such a phenomenal year as Jeff Mullins, who trains Santa Anita Derby winner Buddy Gil.

Mullins doesn't deal with blue-chip stock as the big names of his sport do; his barn is still populated by plenty of claiming horses. Yet he has compiled a winning percentage better than Baffert, Lukas, Frankel and just about everybody else. Not only is he winning at an astonishing 33 percent rate, but he has done so by taking unaccomplished horses - such as Buddy Gil - and improving them radically.

If Mullins had accomplished his feats in an earlier, more innocent era, he would be hailed unequivocally as the bright new star of Thoroughbred racing. But at a time when the use of illegal drugs is thought to be rampant and miracle-working trainers appear at almost every track, the 40-year-old Westerner is regarded with suspicion as much as admiration. Can plain good horsemanship possibly account for his feats?

* He took the 3-year-old King Robyn, who had been a low-level allowance runner at Calder Race Course, and transformed him into a stakes winner at Santa Anita.

* He claimed the mare Garden in the Rain for $50,000 and she subsequently ran second in a pair of Grade 2 stakes.

* He claimed the filly Just Too Too, who won her debut with a Beyer Speed Figure of 69, and brought her back to win an allowance race with a figure of 88 - an immediate seven-length improvement.

* After he claimed Summer Service out of a maiden race, which he won with a figure of 76, the gelding ran away with his next start by eight lengths, earning a stratospheric 108 speed figure.

Mullins disclaims the possession of any magic formulas, legal or illegal. He said he concentrates on giving all his horses to best possible basic care: "The first thing I do is make sure their teeth are in good shape. I worm them. I vaccinate them." He is aware of the suspicions, but knows there's no way to refute them. "There's nothing you can say," he says.

What can be said is that the steady, upward trajectory of Mullins's career hardly fits the profile of a trainer who deserves suspicion. While most of the miracle workers become instant successes after years of obscurity or outright failure, Mullins is a trainer who has paid his dues.

Raised on a farm in Utah, Mullins said, "My dad had Quarter Horses the whole time I was growing up. He had me galloping horses when I was 8. He bought a Thoroughbred mare, and my childhood chores were taking care of the horses and milking the cows."

Mullins started training when he was 17 and took a few horses to the track in Boise, Idaho, racing them in his father's name. (His jockey was a teenager named Gary Stevens - the Hall-of-Famer who will ride Buddy Gil on Saturday.) He launched his career in earnest when he moved to Arizona, eventually establishing himself as the dominant trainer in the state. His current high-percentage winning record in California is nothing new. From 1997 to 2000 he won with nearly 30 percent of his starters - a remarkable achievement.

Ready for the major leagues, Mullins asked his principal owners "if they would step up and get better horses." When they assented, he made his move to Southern California. His stable grew stronger when Richard Englander, the country's top race-winning owner in 2002, observed his work and asked Mullins to train for him.

Englander believes Mullins's success is due in part to his minor-league background, likening him to Scott Lake, his highly successful trainer who started his career at little Penn National Race Course. "There's something to be said for guys who have to deal with all the problems of cheap horses," Englander said. "Jeff is a great horseman."

Mullins's early association with Quarter Horses formed a crucial part of his professional education - just as it did for Lukas and Baffert, who both graduated from that sport. It made him understand that the best way to handle a racehorse is with a light touch. "Once you get a Quarter Horse fit, all you have to do is keep them fresh and happy," he said. "A lot of Thoroughbred trainers tend to over-train, in my opinion."

Mullins's touch has been evident to Californians for the last year, particularly at the recent Santa Anita meeting, where more than 60 percent of his starters finished first or second. Now Buddy Gil is focusing national attention on the trainer.

Buddy Gil had been racing without distinction in northern California when the five partners who own him sent the gelding to Mullins. They suggested he might run in a high-priced claiming race. But when Mullins started to train Buddy Gil, he decided that this was no claimer. He entered Buddy Gil in a sprint stakes race on the grass, and he won it, mocking his 26-1 odds. Mullins was emboldened to pit the gelding against the best 3-year-olds in the West, and Buddy Gil beat them all, winning the San Felipe Stakes by a nose and the Santa Anita Derby by a head. His record with Mullins is now 3 starts, 3 stakes wins and nearly $700,000 in earnings. If the gelding extends his winning streak Saturday, racing fans across the country will join Californians in asking: How does Jeff Mullins do it?

(c) 2003 The Washington Post