Questions Follow Trainer Mullins's Success
Friday, May 6, 2005
LOUISVILLE, May 5 -- He arrives at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby a pariah, but trainer Jeff Mullins doesn't much care what people think of him.
Any other trainer who reached Kentucky after having won a third consecutive Santa Anita Derby with a 30-1 long shot such as Buzzards Bay would be lauded. Instead, Mullins is a target of derision from the racing media and fans, as well as a worry to some of those racing against him Saturday in the Derby.
His phenomenal rise to success -- from riding races as a boy at bush tracks in Utah and Wyoming to waves of victories training on the elite Southern California racing circuit -- was accompanied by persistent whispers of cheating.
The suspicions were proven right in January when one of his horses tested positive for an elevated level of total carbon dioxide.
The level found exceeded the threshold agreed upon by California thoroughbred trainers, owners and track management and was attributed to bicarbonate loading -- "milkshaking," in racing parlance -- which slows fatigue in a horse. The amount found, according to the veterinarian conducting milkshake testing for Santa Anita Park, was equivalent to Mullins having given the horse more than a half box of baking soda.
Mullins, 42, was one of four trainers caught during the meet, and track officials forced him to place his horses in a 24-hour detention barn before every race for a month.
Mullins, who routinely won 30 percent of his races, plummeted to half that as soon as his horses were put under watch. He then opened the floodgates when, in a column published March 6 in the Los Angeles Times, Mullins said horseplayers are "addicts and idiots crying because they lost a $2 bet . . . If you bet on horses, I would call you an idiot."
"Simply put: Mullins is the idiot," wrote Jeremy Plonk on ESPN.com. "Inexcusable," said D.G. Van Clief, the commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. ". . . the aptly named Buzzards Bay," Bill Handleman wrote in the Asbury Park Press.
"Until we started getting threatening phone calls on our children, it didn't bother me," Mullins said. "We filed police reports and had our phones blocked and all kinds of stuff."
In an era when Hollywood-smooth and handsome Bob Baffert has largely been the public face of California racing, Mullins has more than a little rawhide in him. He dresses like a long and tall cowboy -- boots, jeans, big belt buckle -- and appears to hold some of the murky ethical standards of a gunslinger in the Old West.
For example, he admits to his horse having an elevated level of bicarbonate, just not to breaking the rule.
"There were a few of us caught with high TCO2 levels in their horses, but there was no one caught with a tube in their hand," Mullins said. "You've got to do everything you can to get your horse to perform. That's what people hire you for. Like a mechanic: He's going to take everything in his knowledge to get his car to run the best. We're going to do what we can to make these horses run without breaking any rules or getting anyone in trouble."
Rick Arthur, the vet conducting milkshake testing at Santa Anita, calls Mullins a good trainer who doesn't have a clear sense of ethics.
"It's an attitudinal problem, and those things are hard to overcome," Arthur said. "It's basic ethics is what it is.
"The bottom line is [Mullins] basically lives in his own world, and you can tell by his comments that's the case. He's oblivious to everything around him and does things his own way and thinks it's right."
Mullins agrees with the assessment that he is basically inward-looking. "Someone asked me, 'Are you following all your Derby competitors?' I said, 'No, why should I?' We're going to take care of our horse the best we can. Why do we want to worry about everybody else? All we need to do is worry about our own."
The uproar over the gambling comments, however, forced Mullins out in the open. Under relentless criticism, he set up an interview on TVG, the cable racing network, and apologized to fans. Mullins explains that when he was training at Turf Paradise in Arizona in the 1990s, before moving up to the California tracks, he developed a severe gambling problem.
"I tried it, and I didn't have the money to do it," Mullins said. "When you have to borrow money to eat, it doesn't feel good. I was taking on horses for a percentage of what they made just to have horses. I thought maybe I could supplement my income and it didn't work. I was leading trainer at Turf Paradise the last three years I was there, and it took me three years to pay off my debt."
Testing for milkshakes, conducted for years in Maryland, will for the first time be in place for the Kentucky Derby, according to chief steward Mickey Sample.
Still, the minds are not eased of all the entrants.
"Sure I am concerned," said Charlotte Weber, owner of High Fly, who is trained by Nick Zito. "I would feel a lot more comfortable having a level playing field.
"I've never had a positive with one of my trainers, and I've talked with my trainers about it and they know I wouldn't tolerate it. It can come back to bite you."
Buzzards Bay enters the Derby 20-1 in the morning line. Mullins is confident his horse is improving at the right time to make an impact. He planned on keeping a low profile on the backstretch in the days leading up to the race.
"I'm not going to talk to too many people at Churchill," he said. "When you get to this level, there's enough people around you with enough class that it's not going to make a difference."