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.
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 today 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.
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 11/2-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.
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.
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.
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