12/18/2008 12:00AM

Sunland sure looks sweet to Mullins


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - With its sponsored purse of $750,000, the CashCall Futurity on Saturday at Hollywood Park sticks out like a stakes oasis at the end of a long, arid march. It's a great race to have around, and a dozen young runners will try to win it. But don't be misled. Overnight purses on the Futurity program are nothing to brag about, as the daily purse structure in California - and elsewhere - continues to suffer from declines in handle, while forcing many blue-collar stables to look elsewhere for economic solutions.

Jeff Mullins trains one of them. With an operation that feeds from both the bottom of the food chain as well as the top, Mullins needs a steady supply of vigorous claiming and optional claiming races to justify his day rate and keep patrons in action. Mullins usually runs between 500 and 600 horses a year, nearly all of them on the Southern California circuit, but this season the total will be closer to 400, a troublesome statistic for a trainer not shy about playing the game. His answer?

"I'm going to New Mexico."

Mullins has bedded down 20 runners at the Crossroads Ranch training center, located in Anthony, N.M., about 20 minutes by van ride to Sunland Park. Check that. The full name of the place is Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino - "Where Winners Play" - and where purses for horses of lesser quality are regularly topping prize money for comparable races on the coast.

"Purses have gotten so low here in California for these claimers that the horses were going to leave anyway," Mullins said Wednesday afternoon, back home in Arcadia following a two-day trip to New Mexico. "I charge $90 a day, and I feel guilty sending my bills out. When I found out Santa Anita was cutting their purses right off the bat, I just figured I'd take them somewhere myself."

Hand it to Mullins for trying to get ahead of the trend, even though he made the decision too late to get stalls at Sunland itself (there are only about 800 available). By establishing a beachhead in New Mexico, he has put a certain segment of his customer base in the mix for casino-fueled purses that render California in stark perspective.

For instance, a recent one-mile $10,000 claiming race at Sunland for fillies and mares carried a purse of $19,000. A similar race at Hollywood Park offered $11,000. The math is unforgiving.

"You can run a $5,000 nonwinners of two at Sunland Park for $10,800, and the other day I ran a $20,000 horse there for a $30,000 purse," Mullins said. "I can charge $30 less a day and run for twice the money. The surface there is excellent - a really, really kind dirt surface - and the atmosphere is laid-back and very accommodating. It kind of reminds me of back home in Utah - everybody just having fun and racing horses. I can even dress down a little."

It has been three seasons since Mullins won the third of his three straight Santa Anita Derbies in 2005 with Buzzards Bay (Buddy Gil and Castledale were the others), and he continues to pitch his operation in that direction. Mullins was rich in 2-year-old filly talent during the last half of 2008, at least until illness sent Impressive Lady and Candilejas temporarily to the sidelines. As for the colts, the jury is still out on the imported Battle of Hastings, while I Want Revenge will step up on Saturday to try his luck in the CashCall Futurity.

With the top-rated California 2-year-olds either exported (Midshipman), passing the race (Square Eddie), or retired (Street Hero), the Futurity figures to make some young runner an overnight star. Mullins is hoping that I Want Revenge, a son of Stephen Got Even, can improve enough off his maiden win in late October to challenge likely Futurity headliners Pioneerof the Nile, Bittel Road, Mr. Rod, Chocolate Candy, and Frumious.

Owned by David Lanzman, I Want Revenge sprinted three times and finished third three times before winning at 1 1/16 miles.

"We were nursing him through shins, kind of picking our spots," Mullins said. "We spent so much time between races that we had to keep sprinting him. Then finally he worked his way through it and we got to stretch him out where he needs to be. If it hadn't been for his shins, he'd of probably been going a route a long time ago.

"He got a real easy lead and wasn't challenged that day he won, so it's hard to say how good he is yet," Mullins added. "I do know the horse that run second to him came right back to win. He's definitely a talented colt - a big, nice strong individual. But I guess you never really know until they're challenged."

The Futurity will tell Mullins a lot about I Want Revenge, and whether he has got a contender for the 2009 version of the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 4. If he is not, there is at least some consolation available. It is called the Sunland Derby, on March 29, and it offers a purse of $800,000.