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ARCADIA, Calif. - Jeff Mullins' first horse was a Shetland pony named Smokey, a present from his mom and dad in simpler days at the family's South Jordan home.
Back then, watching young Jeff tiptoe around the shaggy new pet, you would never have guessed he would grow up to be a champion racehorse trainer and one of the most talked-about personalities at Saturday's 131st Kentucky Derby.
"We thought, 'He's a boy, he's bound to like horses,' " Janette Mullins, Jeff's mother, said with a laugh. "But he was afraid of them. He would actually get sick when he thought he had to ride the horse."
Told he must get over his fright or the family would be forced to sell Smokey, the lad worked up the nerve to climb aboard the beast.
"Pretty soon," Janette said, "they were tearing around the neighborhood."
For Jeff Mullins, now 42, this winter brought more stomach-churning experiences in the horse business. He faced official sanctions and embarrassing headlines after one of his horses at Santa Anita Park failed a post-race test for the banned medication known in the sport as a "milkshake." Amid that controversy he angered Southern California racing fans by telling a newspaper columnist that anybody who bets on horses is either an "idiot" or an "addict."
But Mullins' critics soon found out what a certain Shetland pony learned three decades earlier: It's hard to keep this guy down.
Needing vindication, Mullins gained it in Secretariat-size proportions in April when a long-shot colt called Buzzards Bay gave the trainer his third consecutive victory in the Santa Anita Derby and his fourth consecutive berth in the Kentucky Derby.
"There's quite a bit of gratification that comes with this one," Mullins said that day. "I think you know why."
Today, when Buzzards Bay's name goes into the entry box at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Mullins and Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel will be the only trainers to put horses in the Derby in each of the past four years.
That Buzzards Bay will not be among the favorites on the odds board hasn't diminished Mullins' confidence that the Florida-bred colt owned by the San Francisco-area group Fog City Stable will do better than his earlier Derby starters Lusty Latin (15th in 2002), Buddy Gil (sixth in 2003) and Castledale (14th in 2004).
"This horse is just getting to the peak of his career now," Mullins said of Buzzards Bay, who was a 30-1 shot when he nursed a narrow lead for the last five-eighths of a mile of the 1 -mile Santa Anita Derby to win by a half-length under jockey Mark Guidry. "He's a really game horse. He's a fighter."
If Mullins scores his first victory in a Triple Crown race Saturday, he will be one of the unlikeliest trainers ever to stand in the Derby winner's circle.
Mullins took his early lessons in horsemanship from his father, Leonard, a Utah Power mechanic who raced horses on weekends at Utah's nonbetting bush tracks. Jeff's first experience with victory at the racetrack came when Leonard sent the then-17-year-old to Les Bois Park in Boise, Idaho, to saddle a few horses in his father's name.
Soon after Jeff turned 18 and got his own trainer's license, he scored his first victory at Les Bois Park with a horse named Doctorius.
"You learn everything from the ground up," Mullins said. "You're with the horses from the time they're born to the time they hit the racetrack. There's certain things you learn from growing up with horses that you don't get from graduating from college and going to work for [a star trainer]. It gets slowly injected into your blood this way."
Mullins, who attended Bingham High, thinks he has picked up more than practical horsemanship skills in Utah.
"I think it makes me a better person," said Mullins, who now lives in Arcadia, in Los Angeles' San Gabriel Valley, with his wife, Amy, and children Jessica, Jeffrey Jr. and Justin. "They say people out here get their noses in the air. They get the big-time syndrome. I guess it's just not in me to do that."
In his climb to horse racing's major leagues at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, Mullins made stops in Wyoming, Ohio, New Mexico, Arizona and Northern California.
That low-profile background perhaps is what made Mullins an easy target for cynics when he began winning track championships almost as soon as he arrived on the Southern California scene in 2001.
They had a field day this winter after Mullins became one of four trainers nailed at Santa Anita by a testing program designed by track officials to stop suspected cheating with performance-enhancing baking-soda cocktails called "milkshakes."
When the 5-year-old horse Puppeteer was detected with excessive levels of carbon dioxide in his blood before a second-place finish in the Jan. 22 San Marcos Stakes, it marked the second violation for Mullins in less than a year.
For a month, all of his horses were forced to go under surveillance in a detention barn for 24 hours before racing. In that time, Mullins' win percentage dropped from 28 to 13. It bounced back up to 18 in the weeks after the sanctions ended.
Mullins denied trying to cheat, saying the high carbon-dioxide readings probably came from treatments meant to soothe horses' digestive systems.
"When I first started winning, people would come around and congratulate me and shake my hand," Mullins said in the office from which he runs his 60-horse stable at Santa Anita. "When you start winning too much, you get daggers and swords."
Doug O'Neill, a trainer who has dueled with Mullins for leading-trainer honors at the Southern California tracks, called suspicion a "price" of success.
"There's a ton of jealousy," O'Neill said. "Jeff is someone who came out of nowhere and had success. When that happens, people try to hold you down.
"I respect him a lot," O'Neill said. "He's a tremendous horseman. He probably could take a wild mustang, break it himself, train it himself and ride it himself and win. It really shows you the strength [his barn] has, that they've done all this testing and they can't stop him."
The milkshake matter had yet to cool when Mullins was quoted by a Los Angeles Times columnist as blaming his troubles on bitter gamblers and saying, "If you bet on horses, I would call you an idiot."
After being heckled by fans at Santa Anita, Mullins made a television appearance to apologize and claim the "idiot" comment had been directed only at the columnist, who had pressed him with questions about bettors' right to know about horses' medical histories.
The twin firestorms cost him only one client but "took a lot of fun out of [his job]," Mullins said. "It was a lot more fun back [in Utah]. Winning and losing wasn't that big a deal. It's a little different in the league I'm in now."
Janette and Leonard Mullins and Jeff's sister, Julie Hughson of Sandy, plan to be at Churchill Downs for the Derby while Jeff's brother, Jayson, of Ogden, will stay home.
Jeff Mullins will go into the race as one of the nation's 10 highest-earning trainers in 2005 but perhaps the only one on that list with the feeling he still has something to prove.
Yes, his mother said, she will bet on him to win.