04/07/2003 12:00AM

Road to Louisville began in Idaho, Utah


ARCADIA, Calif. - Let's see if I've got this straight.

The winner of the Santa Anita Derby, and now a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby, is a gelding named Buddy who spent his youth in the high scrub desert of southwestern Idaho under the supervision of his breeder, a former Malibu surfer and beach-town bar owner who was lured into the world of Thoroughbred racing by a superstitious billionaire who was convinced that his wife - the surfer's wife - was a lucky charm.

Okay, while that sinks in, let's move on to the colt who finished second, who in fact ran too good to lose, after sustaining pressure on the pace for every step of the 1 1/8-mile race before going down by a short head in what was his first start past 6 1/2 furlongs.

Indian Express, by Indian Charlie, is the son of a Santa Anita Derby winner who took his first baby steps in a Utah pasture, sold for a $4,500 song at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky, and then ended up in Panama - yes, that Panama - where no 2-year-old could touch him but nobody cared, at least on this side of the canal, until Bob Baffert got wind and matched the expatriate colt with an old friend and client named Phil Chess.

Yes, that Phil Chess, half of the brother act from Poland who took a small radio station in post-war Flint, Mich., and built a music empire in the 1950's. Chicago became the home of Chess Records, and Chess Records was the label where blues lovers could find John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James, the king of the slide guitar.

Chess has known Baffert since Bob's days with the Quarter Horses at Rillito, near Tucson, Ariz., where Chess and his wife are retired. Last fall, Chess got the call that has already changed his life.

"Bob said he had a horse and wanted to know if I was interested," Chess said. "He told me he won two races in Panama - that didn't tell me much - and the price was $150,000, more than I had ever paid for a horse.

"Bob says, 'Phil, this horse is going to be something.' I'll tell you, that man knows his stuff."

Ditto Donnie McFadden. Although foaled in Kentucky, Buddy Gil was deep into his 2-year-old season before leaving his real home back in Idaho at McFadden's Billingsley Creek Ranch, located about 30 miles northwest of Twin Falls near the town of Hagerman.

"They can talk about Kentucky all they want, but we've got a great place to raise our horses," said McFadden, a native Californian who has four partners in Buddy Gil. "We've got the air, the water, great forage, wonderful summer pastures. We put up the best hay. And our horses just outrun their pedigrees."

Whatever it is, McFadden better bottle it quick. Under the guidance of trainer Jeff Mullins, who took over in January from Chuck Jenda, Buddy Gil now has won the two most important Derby preps in California - the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby - and he has done it by no more than the combined length of a lip twitch.

"We have the sagebrush version of the Michael Dickinson program," said McFadden, proud breeder of 2002 Idaho horse of the year, Lookn Mighty Fine. "Instead of the trails like he's got, we ride them all up through the sagebrush with pheasant and quail and deer busting out from all directions. The horses learn to relax, they learn to use themselves, they don't get frightened by distractions. Ask Jeff. You could take this horse right off the track and go deer hunting on him."

I will take his word for it, but that's good to know. Buddy Gil's trail savvy will come in handy at Churchill Downs during Derby week, when coveys of flustered press have been known to spook and take wing at the slightest provocation.

Back in the late 1960's, McFadden was more concerned with point breaks and board wax than breeding nicks. Then a college pal married Howard B. Keck's daughter. Yes, that Howard Keck, as in Turkish Trousers, Fiddle Isle, and Ferdinand.

"They would invite my wife and I to go to the races," McFadden said. "For some reason Mr. Keck thought my wife, Judy, was good luck, so we would go when he had horses like Tell, Saber Mountain, Drin, and Pinjara. They would win, and we' would get invited again.

"I had never been to a horse race in my life," said McFadden, who has spent the last 32 years raising and selling Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. "I didn't realize it would suck me in and turn my whole life around."

So there you have it, enough story lines to last a lifetime. And still it is the horses who carry the tale. The cream of California's blue-blooded Kentucky Derby candidates has been skimmed off and cast aside, leaving these two pilgrims from the Great American West - Idaho and Utah, no less - as the survivors of a long winter's haul.

Buddy Gil and Indian Express. They sound like they should be carrying the mail. And they just might, all the way to Louisville.