04/03/2003 12:00AM

Mullins, self-made man of the West

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The career path that has taken trainer Jeff Mullins from his roots in Utah to the top of California racing looks like an Interstate road map of the West.

The 20-year journey began with two-horse chariot racing when he was a teenager in suburban Salt Lake City. It was a circuitous route, with stops in Idaho, where he had his first winner in July 1981, followed by winters in Arizona and summers in Wyoming, Idaho, and on the northern California fair circuit.

In 2001, he left Turf Paradise in Phoenix for Santa Anita, the start of what has become a breakthrough period in his career.

Last year, Mullins took an ex-claimer named Lusty Latin to the Kentucky Derby, the trainer's first trip to Churchill Downs. At the time, he trained only 12 horses, but success - and the addition of Eclipse Award-winning owner Richard Englander as a client - allowed Mullins to expand his stable to its current size of 35 horses.

This year, Mullins, 40, is ranked second in the trainer standings at Santa Anita and is trying to get back to the Kentucky Derby with Buddy Gil, who starts in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby for a five-member partnership.

Through Wednesday, Mullins had 23 winners from 73 starters, an impressive strike rate of 32 percent at the Santa Anita meet. He says the success does not surprise him.

"We work hard and try to enter where we can end," he said. "We knew it was going to happen, it was a matter of time. You have to get here and get in the groove."

The success has led to uncharitable comments by rival trainers, some of whom have seen their former horses improve substantially after being claimed by Mullins. But when pressed, none of these trainers would offer anything more specific than general grousing.

"I think a lot of these guys overtrain in Southern California," Mullins said. "We took a lot of horses and backed up. We trained them steady but trained them light. When you stop grinding on them, a lot of these horses get happier."

And the backlash from his colleagues doesn't surprise him.

"That happens anywhere you go," he said. "That's why I left Phoenix. It's usually the guys who show up at sunup, after we have half our work done, that are complaining. I'm used to it. I like to be a horseman not a politician. I got here by myself. I didn't come on the shirttails of anybody."

Mullins was born and raised in Utah, where he started galloping horses at 8. The closest parimutuel racetrack was Les Bois Park in Boise, the site of Mullins's first winner in 1981, which was ridden by Gary Stevens, Buddy Gil's jockey.

In the mid-1980's, Mullins got what he called a "real job" working for Salt Lake County installing traffic signals and street lighting, but he trained on weekends.

When he qualified a filly, Fazam, for a futurity in Wyoming, Mullins asked for a leave of absence. He was turned down - and quit. Fazam did not win the Futurity, but she turned Mullins back into a horse trainer.

"Then we started having better horses and couldn't run them at the fairs, so we started shipping here," Mullins said, referring to Santa Anita. "Pretty soon, we quit going to the fairs. Pretty soon, we stopped going to Phoenix."

In a way, the Mullins stable is a mom-and-pop operation. Mullins is assisted by his wife of 12 years, Amy. The couple has two young children. Jeff also has a teenage daughter from a previous relationship.

Buddy Gil has been with the stable since late January; he was previously based in northern California with Chuck Jenda. With Mullins, Buddy Gil is unbeaten in two starts, winning the Baldwin Stakes on turf at 26-1 on Feb. 23 and overcoming trouble to win the San Felipe Stakes by a nose over the highly rated Atswhatimtalknbout on March 16.

The San Felipe has left Mullins wondering how much the colt can accomplish with a clean trip.

"Everyone is questioning his ability to go the distance, but I think the horse's mind and Gary's hands will get him there," Mullins said.

A few months ago, Buddy Gil seemed to have little hope of starting in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Now, the dream is almost a reality.

"I thought I'd be sitting on the couch watching the Derby," Mullins said. "I still might, but at least we have a chance."