08/11/2004 11:00PM

Mullins, O'Neill changing the game

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It was only three summers ago that trainers Doug O'Neill and Jeff Mullins were mere blips in the standings. Their combined total for the 2001 Del Mar meet - eight wins, four apiece.

But in three short years, an extreme power shift has transformed Southern California racing. O'Neill and Mullins have replaced Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel as the circuit's dominant trainers, winning races with such frequency that handicappers must consider more than the horse-related fundamentals.

Beyond four basic considerations - condition, class, speed, and pace - a fifth vital concern is in the handicapping equation. Halfway through the 43-day Del Mar meet, O'Neill and Mullins are reminding bettors that the ability of the trainer is nearly as important as the ability of the horse.

One in six races has been won by a horse trained by either O'Neill or Mullins. Through Wednesday, O'Neill was 15 for 52; Mullins was 11 for 35. A bettor could throw his hands in the air and simply wager on every horse they start. But how much fun would that be? Besides, both still lose more than they win. The game has tilted, but it has not turned upside down. As for Mullins, his outstanding long-term win percentage has compelled handicappers to reconsider the issue of trainer intent, even while rival horsemen complain about his success.

"Everybody cries because I have a high percentage, [they say] I shouldn't be hitting at that percentage. Well you know what? A lot of these guys run just to see their horses run - I don't. I run to see them win," Mullins said.

It is habit. Over the last eight years, Mullins dipped below 24 percent just once. In 2002, he won with "only" 19 percent of his starters. From 1997 forward, his overall win rate is nearly 28 percent. How does he do it? Jealous backstretch gossip asserts that Mullins has some sort of unfair advantage, though there is no monopoly on hard work. Mullins arrives early at the barn and stays late.

There is one edge, however, that Mullins takes as often as possible. That is, using the condition book to full benefit. "I'm pretty picky where I put my horses, I make sure they're in the right spot," he said, while admitting he can be stubborn when fielding calls from the racing office. "They try to hustle you into spots. [They ask] do you want to run your Cal-bred open? No. Want to run your filly with the boys? No. Want to run your sprinter long? No.

"I'm not going to put them in a spot where I know they don't have a chance. I don't like that feeling of leading them over there knowing that you're going over there for nothing. I like to know that I've got a shot, and that I'm the one to beat when I go over there."

With Mullins, it is almost always a "go," and most winners are fresh horses. Only one of his first 11 winners this summer had more than two recent starts for Mullins; the three highest-price winners were either returning from short layoffs (Choctaw Nation, $14.60; Sweet Win, $18.60) or making their second start after a layoff (Jimmy's Instinct, $43.60).

The one categorical weakness of Mullins is by design. "I never try with first-time starters," he admits. "Why should I? I just run them and let them develop themselves."

If he wins his fourth consecutive training title (he won Hollywood fall, Santa Anita winter, and Hollywood spring-summer), Mullins will do it with a higher win percentage and fewer starters than O'Neill. With 80 horses in training (40 at Del Mar, 40 at Hollywood Park), O'Neill will run more horses this summer than any trainer in Southern California. The stable size gives O'Neill flexibility.

"The biggest luxury is when a horse isn't doing good, we stop," O'Neill said. "We have plenty more to choose from." O'Neill has been active at the claim box the past few months; seven of his first 15 Del Mar winners were horses claimed this year.

A familiar theme runs through O'Neill's winners - most have raced no more than twice recently for O'Neill. And this summer, O'Neill has imitated a pattern frequently employed by other high-volume operations - the claim-and-drop maneuver. It is confusing to bettors, because it defies economic logic and can result in a net loss for owners.

Four times this meet, O'Neill has won with horses dropping two levels below a recent claim price. The potential loss when horses are claimed for less than they cost is a loss that large stables can absorb. O'Neill's claim-and-drop winners include Best in the Storm, $16,000 two starts after being claimed for $25,000; Forward March, $16,000 a race after being claimed for $25,000; Charming Boy, $12,500 the race after being claimed for $20,000; and Senfully Easy, $10,000 after being claimed for $16,000. The respectable win payoffs ranged from $7.80 to $8.80.

"We're blessed with good owners who, no matter what we claimed them for, want to run them aggressively," O'Neill said. Does it provide an advantage? "Probably, but at the same time it opens the door for someone else to take [claim] horses for 60 cents on the dollar."

O'Neill also wins with layoff runners. The Griff returned July 31 from a seven-week freshening, dropped in for a $50,000 tag and romped with a 103 Beyer Figure, highest of his 17-race career. Kamsack returned July 30 following a 17-month layoff, raced over his conditions, yet earned a 100 Beyer in a classified allowance.

O'Neill typically tapers off at Del Mar, but he shows no sign of a slowdown this summer. With 15 victories, he already has surpassed his previous high Del Mar total of 13 wins, in 2003.

While a 15 percent win rate is considered respectable, O'Neill and Mullins are leaving that benchmark in the dust. Even while favorites have won just 27 percent of the races this summer at Del Mar, O'Neill's 28 percent win rate and Mullins 31 percent rate are reminding bettors there are factors to consider other than condition, class, speed, and pace.

At Del Mar in 2004, the ability of the trainer is almost as important as the ability of the horse.