Mullins not talking day before Derby

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's never a good thing when the man of the moment needs a publicist to tell people he isn't talking.

But that's exactly what happened Friday outside Jeff Mullins' barn on the backstretch at Churchill Downs. The trainer of 3-1 morning-line favorite I Want Revenge has said little during the week leading up to the race, and won't have much time to discuss it afterward, even if he wins.

At 12:01 a.m., Sunday, Mullins begins serving a suspension for administering an over-the-counter medication to another of his horses, Gato Go Win, in a detention barn just before a race in New York several weeks ago. It bars him from setting foot on a track anywhere.

"If you like him, you like him," former jockey Gary Stevens said. "If you don't, he doesn't much care."

The Hall of Fame rider was aboard one of Mullins' five previous Derby mounts, Buddy Gil, for a sixth-place finish in 2003, but he's known the California-based trainer since 1980. That's when the two, both 17-year-olds at the time, teamed up with a horse named Doctorious to give Mullins his first win.

Both the success and the circumstances of that win at Les Bois Park in Idaho all those years ago were a harbinger of things to come. It showed that Mullins was in a hurry to go places and, further, that he wasn't above playing fast and loose with the rules to get there, since he was racing under his father's name.

"He's hardened a little bit since then," Stevens said, "over the accusations against him the last 4-5 years, and because of what happened in New York. But he's always been the first one to show up at work and the last to leave. The man works his butt off."

Since leaving cheap horses and bush-league tracks behind, Mullins established his bona fides in California, where he moved his operation in 2001. But his methods have been scrutinized as often as saluted. Two of his horses tripped up on tests measuring levels of sodium bicarbonate -- raising suspicions of an illegal procedure known as milkshaking -- and California Horse Racing Board officials spent plenty of time baby-sitting his barn.

Depending on how Saturday turns out, this could be the second year in a row that a horseman with unquestioned talent and an unsavory past hijacks thoroughbred racing's premier event. If that happens, the sport and its scattered regulators will have no one to blame but themselves. Mullins' penalty for the infraction in New York was a $2,500 fine and seven days away from the track, which won't put any more of a crimp in his plans to run in the Preakness than it did at the Derby.

And if those incidents sound familiar, they should. Only last year, Rick Dutrow Jr., and an imposing colt named Big Brown grabbed the spotlight at the Kentucky Derby and held it through the Preakness before fading on the torturous 1½-mile oval at Belmont in the last leg of the Triple Crown.

Dutrow lost his license once for using drugs himself and was hounded by whispers that he wasn't above doping his horses, either. Oddly enough, it was Dutrow's admission that he administered Winstrol that raised the biggest ruckus. It's an old-school steroid that was legal at the time in all three states where the classic races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds are run.

Instead of kicking off the party for a sport desperate to celebrate something, Big Brown's deflating finish only gave rise to even more questions about the durability, breeding, safety and drug use of the horses that make racing go.

If part of Dutrow's problem was that he couldn't stop talking, Mullins' might be that he's hardly started. He claimed ignorance of a New York racing rule barring trainers from administering medication in a detention barn -- even though that's the reason horses are held there for four hours before a race. Mullins also acknowledged Gato Go Win didn't have a cough, which made his decision to give the colt a dose of an over-the-counter cough syrup called Air Power even more curious.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who races against Mullins on the California circuit, called Mullins suspension "unfortunate." But he also pointed to a two-page handout issued Friday by Churchill Downs officials reminding trainers that administering even over-the-counter medications (Air Power was mentioned by name) was an invitation to trouble.

The same syndicate that owned Big Brown has a considerable stake in I Want Revenge, and earlier this week, IEAH Stables boss Michael Iavarone complained that because of the controversies recently, "we're still at the point where the public perceives this almost as professional wrestling."

If all those involved, from the trainers to the owners to the appointed guardians of the sport, really want to know why, the answer is as easy to find as the closest mirror.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org