04/10/2005 11:00PM

Mullins twists the plot again


ARCADIA, Calif. - Hunter Thompson being unavailable - not to mention Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Mickey Spillane - it will be awhile before last Saturday's $750,000 finds its proper telling in terms of twisted comedy and operatic intrigue, although David Milch, dark bard and horse gambler, was seen taking notes for a possible episode of "Deadwood."

All the ingredients are ripe for harvest: revenge, retribution, disappointment, and humiliation, played out around two turns at 40 miles per hour. There was no bloodshed, thank goodness. But weapons were definitely brandished.

The winning trainer wore a big smile instead of his usual black hat. The gallant runner-up was a 64-1 wild card trained by an iconoclastic former talk show host. The beaten favorite was a stylish filly brought to her knees by events beyond her control.

None of this was in the script. The Santa Anita Derby was supposed to be a heartwarming romp with a fairy-tale ending. Sweet Catomine, the noble heroine, would win the day and venture forth to Kentucky, where another Derby of far greater significance awaited her golden touch. Cue Neil Diamond for a variation on "Sweet Caroline," and brace for the gooey media onslaught.

Had Sweet Catomine come through, she was destined for the cover of the Derby Week issue of "TV Guide." Instead, in the wake of the West's final Triple Crown prep, the folks from "Psychology Today" have shown an interest in the entire California racing scene, which now seems on the verge of raving schizophrenia.

"Test him now! Right now!" screamed more than one fan near the winner's circle. Presumably they meant Buzzards Bay, a flashy colt of modest achievement who had just won by a half-length at odds of 30-1 under Mark Guidry for trainer Jeff Mullins and the Fog City Stable of California Horse Racing Board commissioner William Bianco and his partner, David Shimmon.

In a perfect world, such taunts should shed like water from a duck. The cracks aimed at the Mullins horse, however, were not simply loser's steam. They stemmed in large part from the one-month quarantine levied on his runners earlier in the meet because of a high bicarbonate test.

The trainer subsequently became famous for all the wrong reasons, when a frustrated Mullins was quoted by a Los Angeles Times sports columnist, lashing out in a number of directions. Bloggers had a field day, stomping Mullins's name into the mud.

"He's a good horseman, but he knows he should have kept his mouth shut," said Roger Stein, trainer of General John B, who used to encourage racetrackers to speak just as freely on his weekend radio show.

Mullins spent a lot of time apologizing, though more recently he has been taking the advice of his wife.

"I told him the best way to answer any of this is to just keep quiet and win races," said Amy Mullins.

Too bad the comments made by Jeff Mullins the day before the Santa Anita Derby didn't get the same widespread exposure. While interviewed by analysts Kurt Hoover and Jeff Siegel during a segment of HRTV's Santa Anita broadcast, Mullins basically told their audience that Buzzards Bay was ready to run the race of his young life, no matter what the morning line read. He was not alone in such outlandish thought.

"You get to be really close friends with these horses, and we knew he was feeling good," said Amy Mullins, who gallops Buzzards Bay. "I'd pull him up, and I'd be grinning from ear to ear. Of all the horses we've run in the Santa Anita Derby, he was coming to it the best and the healthiest. What you don't know is how the other horses in the race are doing."

In the case of Sweet Catomine, apparently not so hot. The CHRB has launched an inquiry into comments made by owner Marty Wygod and trainer Julio Canani both before and after the Santa Anita Derby that sent, at best, a very mixed message. Sweet Catomine, the marquee draw, was at one point no better than "50-50" to make the race. Either that or she was doing fine.

In the midst of all the melodrama, Mark Guidry managed to celebrate the biggest victory of his career, at age 45. Guidry has taken down some major prizes, but never a race worth $450,000 to the winner.

"This is such a great game," Guidry said. "I don't care if you're 30-1, 100-1, or 3-5. Anything can happen. I just hope I get a chance to ride this guy in the next Derby, because he will try."

Like the man says, anything can happen. Chances are, though, the 68th running of the Santa Anita Derby will have minimal impact on the national 3-year-old scene. This year, for the first time, federal law requires that a Triple Crown prep come equipped with a bona fide Nick Zito horse, otherwise it really didn't happen. And Zito was nowhere near Santa Anita last Saturday.

For the Mullins crew, that hardly mattered. Just as they did in 2003, when Buddy Gil won the Santa Anita Derby, and in 2004, when Castledale did the same, they were once again heading for the Derby.

"The Derby Restaurant," Jeff Mullins said, referring to George Woolf's old place, just down the block. "I just hope they were expecting us, because I would have been thrilled with second or third."