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If you've ever been to a thoroughbred race track such as Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, you quickly notice that the characters are divided into somewhat discernable categories. There are obviously the horses and the gamblers…but after a few trips to the paddock, the owners become easier to spot, all dressed up and hopeful.  And then there are the trainers.  They look a little like cowboys…tough, down-to-earth.  You can tell they work for a living, even if you don't know that they're out at that track at 5 or 6 am every morning working out their horses…and they're still there when you bet their horse in the 9th race at 5:30 pm.  They almost all wear boots and jeans, and you get the sense that nothing is for show.  They leave all the pageantry to their horses, and follow them with their eyes as they circle the paddock, while carrying on conversations with the owners, all of whom hold the trainer personally responsible for their horse's win. 

I don't remember exactly what led to my discovery of trainer Jeff Mullins or what part of the track I was in when I first saw him or the name of his first horse I won on.  I do distinctly remember being aware of him, spotting him in a crowd in his freshly-pressed Wranglers and western shirt and pointed boots and thinking he wasn't my kind of trainer.  Whatever that means.  He looked nothing like (now) Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert with his Turf Club suit.  He looked more like the guys I grew up with in Macon, Georgia, and I felt superior to him.

Then not too long after that, he called those of us who wager on horseracing stupid.

"The problem," Mullins said, "are all the addicts and idiots crying because they lost a $2 bet, and then demanding a level playing field.  It will never be a level playing field. There are a lot of things people don't know, and won't know."  "If you bet on horses, I would call you an idiot," Mullins also told The Times. "I don't bet; there's a reason they call it gambling. I train to win and that's all I care about. It's not my problem (if the general public is deceived). They ought to bring in slot machines, then we could run our horses and make a living without worrying about some crybaby calling the stewards and raising a fit."

The L.A. Times took it and ran with it.  That weekend, some racing fans showed up to the track in dunce caps to protest his comments.  Everyone was furious, one trainer even going so far as to say she wished they'd "run him out of town.”

Even in a business like horseracing that seems a lot more like farming than a high-stakes casino venture, there are cliques.  And one (only one) of these trainers wasn't like the others.  He was from Utah via Ohio via Phoenix.  He started training cheap horses.  He didn't inherit the great Kentucky race horses from the trainer that he apprenticed under.  He learned right where he was, training under his father.  He took everything within reach and did as much with it as could possibly be done.  Then in 2001, he made the move to Southern California.  This is just not how it's done.

As the public continued to hound Mullins (even sending threatening letters to his home), as the shunning accelerated and we watched him stand beside his horses in the paddock in the middle of it all, he suddenly came into focus for us.  His crime was speaking the truth.  It's probably not wise to bet on horses.  We don't do it because it's wise.  But he didn't address any of that…he just said you couldn't possibly begin to know who is going win a race and that gambling is a risk he doesn't take.  Something most of our parents have probably said to us at one point or another. 

We began taking note of his horses and the way he handled them and the way he carried himself.  He began winning…proving himself I guess they call it, in the Southern California Circuit.  He got better and better horses in his barn, and the best jockeys wanted to ride them.  By 2005 he was the leading trainer at prestigious Del Mar.  How ironic.  He is so NOT Del Mar.  He tied for leading trainer for the 2007 Spring/Summer meet at Hollywood Park.  And it sure was fun to watch.

Then in 2009, he had a horse in his barn named I WANT REVENGE that was starting to look like something special and after winning the Gotham and The Wood Memorial, after overcoming a horrible start, and a trip no horse should be able to beat, it was decided he would go to the Kentucky Derby.  When the morning line was announced, I WANT REVENGE was the Derby favorite.

Mullins was interviewed extensively during Derby week and strangely, the same press that handled him so harshly before approached almost reverentially now.  Mullins' demeanor was the same as the last time they had converged on him…saying he just hoped the horse would remain healthy, and little else.

Derby morning came, and we got up early to see a horse we had come to love win the most coveted race of them all.  Then…breaking news…Jeff Mullins at a desk, jockey Joe Talamo beside him, behind a wad of microphones, both of them bleary-eyed and looking the opposite you would expect of the connections of the probable Derby winner.  I WANT REVENGE had some heat in his left front ankle and by the advice of the track veterinarian had been scratched from the race.

"To me, in my whole career, I've never handled a horse of this caliber before and I'm just not going to take a chance on hurting him." Mullins said. "I've been in this business kind of all my life. Most of the things I've learned in this business I learned by hard knocks in more ways than one. Your biggest dream is to get here, but the biggest nightmare is to get to race day and have to scratch. Right now I don't think it's sunk in that much, but I'm pretty disappointed."

It could be said this just wasn't his year.  But how many trainers get all the way to Kentucky with the best horse in their trailer, even if he doesn't get to prove it on that track…on that day?  It's quite a feat.

At some point in between his assessment of us horseplayers in the spring of 2005 and now, Jeff Mullins became our favorite trainer.  Not because of the money we've won off his horses (though we sure have, but because we like seeing a man stand in the face of adversity.  We like a plain-spoken man from Utah who's not too cocky to train a low-level claiming horse.  We like a man who is very, very good at what he does but doesn't go around telling everyone how good he is.  We like a trainer who won't run a horse in the Derby because the horse is more important than winning.  We like a man who irons his Wranglers because he wants to look his best.  We like a man who makes his living off our betting, but isn't shy to tell us it's not a good idea to gamble.  We like a man whose actions are not determined by the action of others.  We like a man who doesn't fit in and doesn't leave because of that.  We like Jeff Mullins.

by Delight Underwood

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