04/23/2009 11:00PM

Urban cowboy lands in Derby spotlight

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Jeff Mullins has I Want Revenge, one of the favorites for this year's Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For all his success, and there has been plenty, trainer Jeff Mullins has long been dogged by questions over his methods. He has racked up major wins, as well as fines and suspensions. Sometimes, as happened three weeks ago, he lands uncomfortably atop that tightrope.

Mullins trains I Want Revenge, who won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 4 to become one of the favorites for next Saturday's 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. But a little earlier in the day, Mullins, in violation of race-day security barn rules, squirted an all-natural equine cough syrup called Air Power into the throat of Gato Go Win, who was scheduled to run in the Bay Shore Stakes. New York Racing Association officials saw what happened, alerted the stewards, and Gato Go Win was ordered scratched.

What if I Want Revenge had been the only horse Mullins was running that day, or if his race had been before Gato Go Win's? It is clear Mullins had intended to treat I Want Revenge the same way, and would have if not for what happened to Gato Go Win. Mullins said the cough syrup incident was an innocent mistake. But the bottom line is this: Had I Want Revenge been treated with Air Power, he also would have been scratched.

"I've thought about it," Mullins said in a recent interview at Santa Anita. "It makes me sick. That might have been the end of things, right there."

Mullins has admitted he pushes it to the edge. But are these kinds of violations representative of someone with a broken moral compass who is trying to cheat, or someone performing a high-wire act along the boundary of the rules?

One thing's for sure - Mullins hates to lose.

"After the Wood, we were drinking champagne in a special room at the track," said David Lanzman, who bred I Want Revenge and is the majority owner. "We had a horse running in a race at Sunland that we watched on TV. He ran fourth.

"I told Jeff, 'All in all, I'm happy.' He got this serious look on his face and said, 'I'm not.' He puts everything into his work. And when his horses don't win, he feels like he failed."

Like Rick Dutrow Jr. a year ago with Big Brown, Mullins, 46, is a controversial figure who stands a good chance of winning the sport's most significant race. Both trainers win at high percentages, have run afoul of the rules, yet have deserved reputations of being brilliant horsemen. Mullins's horses consistently look terrific in the paddock.

"I think he's a good horseman," said Bob Baffert, fellow California-based trainer. "His horses always look good, and he places them in the right spots. Every time you see one of his claimers in, he's always in the right spot. He doesn't just put one in to put one in."

The backgrounds between Dutrow and Mullins are decidedly different. While Dutrow, the son of an outstanding trainer, was born with a silver condition book in his back pocket, Mullins has had to fight his way to the top from humble beginnings.

His father, Leonard, was a welder who owned a steel fabrication shop and worked in the copper mines near their home in Murray, Utah.

"I remember being out toilet-papering at night, and seeing him drive home at midnight," Mullins said.

Just as unsanctioned racing is a way of life for the Cajuns of Louisiana, so too is the sport popular in rural areas of the West in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. That was the life to which Leonard Mullins introduced the eldest of his three children.

"We had horses growing up, Quarter Horses we raced around Utah," Mullins said. "My dad had to work two or three jobs most of the time. My childhood duty was to take care of the horses.

"As a kid, I didn't really like horses. I was kind of scared. But I grew to like them.

"Four or five winters I would take the babies to break them and do it all myself. That's how I learned the most. You start out halter-breaking them, teach them to back up, come forward."

Mullins galloped horses at Laurel Brown Track in South Jordan, Utah, before and after school. By age 17, he was racing horses at Les Bois Park in Idaho under his father's name. He then trained under his own name but struggled for years, racing at Wyoming Downs and Beulah Park, Rillito Park and SunRay Park. He won with 3 of 24 starters in 1985, 6 of 49 in 1986, 2 of 38 in 1987, 8 of 85 in 1989, 9 of 60 in 1990, and just 4 of 61 in 1991. Not until 1993 did his horses earn more than $50,000 in a calendar year.

Mullins had his first suspension in 1986 at Wyoming Downs. He was ruled off for one year and fined $1,500 after a horse tested positive for the corticosteroid prednisolone.

Over the next decade, Mullins became a force in the Southwest. By the spring of 2001, he had won three straight training titles at Turf Paradise. His high win percentage, ranging from 31 to 36 percent those three seasons at Turf Paradise, made him controversial. But according to the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the only rulings against Mullins from 1992 to 2001 were for minor transgressions. His most severe penalty was a $250 fine for having a horse test positive for dimethylsulfoxide, better known as DMSO, a topical analgesic.

Turf Paradise is closed in the summer, and Mullins would run horses on the Northern California fair circuit. He would occasionally ship horses to Southern California and win there, too. By the fall of 2001, having started a family with his wife, Amy, and having just captured his first California training title at Fairplex Park, Mullins decided to remain in Southern California.

"I give up 40 head of horses to stay here with 12," he said.

He also needed to get his financial house in order. "I was leading trainer the last three years I was at Turf Paradise, and after moving to California it took me two years to pay my bills," Mullins said. "If you've got to pay bills, and you've got a family, and you're not a good gambler, that's not good."

Since then, Mullins has added training titles at Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Santa Anita, 10 in all. He won the Santa Anita Derby three years in a row, and went to the Kentucky Derby four straight years. And he often found himself embroiled in controversy.

In May 2003, the California Horse Racing Board took the unusual step of putting out a press release titled "Board Reviewing Form Reversals" after Flyindownbaylaurel, previously trained by Jerry Dutton, beat maidens in her first start for Mullins going long on turf after four losses on dirt. She went off at 7-2 after being 40-1 when facing maiden claimers in a dirt sprint in her prior start, from which she was claimed.

"While it is not a common practice to issue news releases concerning such reviews, the race . . . prompted so much comment that the Board considered it necessary to reassure the public of the CHRB's vigilance in such matters," the press release said.

Nothing untoward was found, but a tense relationship began between Mullins and the California racing board exists to this day.

Asked if felt singled out by the racing board, Mullins paused.

"I could say a lot of things, but I better not," Mullins said. "A lot happened after the Choctaw Nation claim. Let's leave it at that."

In February 2004, Mullins and owner Bob Bone claimed Choctaw Nation for $40,000 out of his debut from trainer Bruce Headley. Choctaw Nation won his next four starts for Mullins, including Del Mar's San Diego Handicap, in which he beat Pleasantly Perfect, who had won the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup in the previous nine months.

Headley is married to Aase Headley, whose sister, Ingrid Fermin, was the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board at the time.

Though Aase Headley would indelicately complain about those she suspected of cheating, Fermin at the time claimed she "never" discussed Choctaw Nation with her sister or brother-in-law.

During the summer of 2004, Del Mar began a pilot program designed to test horses for high levels of total carbon dioxide, or TCO2, which can occur from giving a horse a cocktail euphemistically referred to as a "milkshake," which can enhance performance. No penalties were levied, since the data was gathered as informational only. But Santa Anita, in concert with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers, enacted a TCO2 rule at the end of 2004, and Mullins was cited for violating it in January 2005. His horses were put under 24-hour surveillance for a month. The racing board's carbon dioxide rule was not implemented until October 2005.

In the summer of 2006, Mullins-trained Rob's Coin tested positive for mepivacaine, a local anesthetic, after a race at Hollywood Park. The case dragged out until February 2008, when Mullins received a 90-day suspension, 70 days of which were stayed.

Last summer at Del Mar, Mullins had another carbon dioxide violation, again resulting in his horses being placed under 24-hour prerace surveillance. He could receive further penalties from that incident. But that case's hearing has been postponed repeatedly, most recently by Mullins's attorney, Karen Murphy, and is not scheduled to be heard again until July. But if Mullins is penalized for that violation, it would fall under the probationary period from Rob's Coin, and, according to racing board rules, he would face a minimum suspension of 30 days.

And then came L'Affair Air Power at Aqueduct.

Despite these transgressions, Lanzman, who has had horses with Mullins for a little more than three years, said the trainer's attention to detail is exhaustive.

"The first time I ran a horse with him, the jock came to the paddock and he gave very detailed instructions about how to ride the horse," Lanzman said. " 'Don't lean on her neck. Get her mouth into the bit and you won't need to lean on her neck.'

"Another time, we had a horse running down the hillside turf course at Santa Anita. He told the jock, 'Don't bother warming her up, just take her back and forth across the dirt strip, even if it's 15 times, so it won't be a surprise when she runs.' Every little detail. He just knows more than everybody else."

Lanzman said Mullins forgoes hobnobbing in the turf club, preferring to remain at the barn. Mullins has approximately 75 horses between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

"If they made every trainer give up their grooms and hotwalkers and made the trainer do everything, he's the only one on the backside who wouldn't be looking for a job tomorrow," Lanzman said.

That dedication, Mullins said, likely cost him his marriage. He and Amy, who is an exercise rider, split last year, and though they are not officially divorced yet, "it's in the works," Mullins said.

"I think my work affected my personal life," Mullins said. "But when two people are together for 17 years, living and working together, day in and day out, that's a pretty good feat. And she was a huge asset to the operation."

They have two boys, Jeffrey Jr., 10, and Justin, 8. Mullins also has a daughter, Jessica, 21, from a previous relationship. She recently had a child.

"Made me a grandpa," Mullins said.

Despite being a grandfather, Mullins has the youthful, rugged look of a cowboy. He works out every day, a habit he began a little more than a year ago.

"It was during my 20-day suspension," he said. "I'd stay home in the morning with the kids, get them off to school, then go to the gym. Amy and I both worked. We'd always have someone coming to the house to help get the kids off to school. It was good to be with them, cook them breakfast. It made me realize there's a real life outside the racetrack."

Mullins has adjusted somewhat to the California lifestyle, frequently wearing shorts and a designer shirt when the weather is warm, but he likes to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and he'll play the villain of the piece. When I Want Revenge ran in the CashCall Futurity last December at Hollywood Park, Mullins wore a full Western outfit, all in black. Including, naturally, a black hat.

I Want Revenge ran second that day, indicating he would be a force at age 3.

"We always liked the colt, but he was shinny," Mullins said. "We never had to take him out of training, but we had to train him lightly. We had to take baby steps with him. By his third sprint, he had worked through it, and when we stretched him out, he improved by leaps and bounds."

Further improvement came when I Want Revenge was outfitted with blinkers, and, one start later, left for New York and the Gotham Stakes, which was his first start on dirt.

"The synthetic surfaces are like turf, and David Lanzman told me the dam tried turf and couldn't stand up on it," Mullins said. "I thought we should get him out of town, get him on dirt, and see what happens."

What happened is that I Want Revenge ran two powerful races at Aqueduct to become a top Derby contender.

This is Mullins's fifth trip to Churchill Downs. He finished 15th with the longshot Lusty Latin in 2002, then came up short with Santa Anita Derby winners Buddy Gil (sixth in 2003), Castledale (14th in 2004), and Buzzards Bay (fifth in 2005).

"One thing I've learned over the years, and that I'd have rather done this year, is ship in on top of the race," Mullins said. "The weather varies. The track changes." But I Want Revenge had traveled twice to New York. The thought of bringing him back to Hollywood Park, where Mullins is based, and traveling again, was not appealing.

Mullins has come to Churchill Downs this time with, unquestionably, his best chance yet to win the Derby. Yet the Gato Go Win incident will be hanging over him. One week ago, Mullins was suspended for seven days, and fined $2,500, by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. The suspension begins the day after the Derby. It is both inevitable, and unavoidable, that his career will be dredged repeatedly leading up to the Derby.

How does he think he is perceived?

"I don't care, as long as my clients are not bothered by it," Mullins said. "As long as they have faith in me, and they stick by me, that's all I really care about."