Updated on 09/17/2011 10:13AM

Stevens and Buddy Gil a potent pair

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San Felipe Stakes winner Buddy Gil starts in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby this Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Gary Stevens may not own the Santa Anita Derby. But he's got squatters' rights. He won it for the first time in 1988, and seven times since then, tying him with Bill Shoemaker for the most wins in the race.

Two months ago, Stevens was making a movie, working in concert with a number of people who now own a piece of Atswhatimtalknbout, the favorite in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. There is no room for sentiment, though. Stevens wants to set a record in the Santa Anita Derby, and he wants to get some overdue recognition for his mount, Buddy Gil, who beat Atswhatimtalknbout three weeks ago in the San Felipe Stakes, but has played a supporting role in the buildup to this race.

"I'm very, very happy where I'm sitting going into this weekend," Stevens said. "This horse has shown the versatility to win a stakes race at six and a half furlongs down the hill, and then to stretch out to a mile and a sixteenth. He's improved since then, too. He's working brilliantly."

Buddy Gil overcame traffic trouble to beat Atswhatimtalknbout by a nose in the San Felipe, which followed his upset victory in the Baldwin Stakes on turf. Atswhatimtalknbout galloped out stronger after the San Felipe, and Saturday's 1 1/8-mile distance should suit his style. But much of the attention focused on Atswhatimtalknbout is about his apparent craving for 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the May 3 Kentucky Derby.

And that brings up the conundrum of this Santa Anita Derby. While Atswhatimtalknbout may be the best Kentucky Derby prospect of the 10 3-year-olds in the race, he figures to be a poor betting number on Saturday. From a pure sporting standpoint, it will be fascinating to see which horses run well and move on to Churchill Downs. But from a betting standpoint, Atswhatimtalknbout figures to be an unattractive underlay, and that makes horses like Buddy Gil, Domestic Dispute, Kafwain, Ministers Wild Cat, and Ocean Terrace tempting prices.

Just how good is Buddy Gil?

"Hopefully, we don't know yet," said his trainer, Jeff Mullins. "He's gotten better every race. He never got a chance to run last time, which is probably good, because it didn't wear him out. He's been tearing the barn down."

Domestic Dispute and Kafwain, as well as longshot speedster Indian Express, are trained by Bob Baffert, who will be seeking a record-setting fifth Santa Anita Derby victory. Domestic Dispute was fifth as the favorite in the San Felipe, at odds of 2-1. He will be a much higher price this time. If that last race can be discarded, he is a legitimate threat.

"I gave bad instructions to Jerry Bailey last time," Baffert said. "He needs to be let run earlier." Corey Nakatani rides Domestic Dispute, but he must overcome the outside post.

Kafwain has crossed the wire first or second in his last seven starts, including victories at Santa Anita in the Norfolk Stakes and San Vicente Stakes. Baffert wants Kafwain to be closer to the pace than he was in recent starts. Pat Valenzuela is being entrusted with that assignment after Baffert replaced Victor Espinoza.

"Different rider, different style," Baffert said. "Pat has experience in big races. Maybe he'll find that something extra. He's probably the hottest jockey going right now."

Espinoza is hot, too - under the collar. He is estranged from Baffert following a recent public spat at Santa Anita. Espinoza will ride Ministers Wild Cat, who most recently finished second in the 1 1/16-mile El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows. He adds blinkers for this race.

"Farther distance will help him," said Neil Drysdale, who trains Ministers Wild Cat.

Ocean Terrace beat Ministers Wild Cat in the El Camino Real Derby, and has won all three of his starts. "We were rushed last time out because he was coming back in 20 days and had to ship," said Bob Hess Jr., who trains Ocean Terrace. "This time he's had 28 days."

Make no mistake, though, Atswhatimtalknbout is the horse to beat. And there figures to be a contested pace that will flatter his late run.

"Each race he's gained a lot of experience," said his trainer, Ron Ellis. "He seems like he's on an upward flight."

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