Buddy Gil, foreground, and Indian Express, in Santa Anita Derby photo finish.

Buddy Gil, foreground, and Indian Express, in Santa Anita Derby photo finish.

Benoit and Associates

Stevens Finds a Friend in Buddy Gil

Jockey Gary Stevens broke Bill Shoemaker's record with his ninth Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) victory Saturday aboard unheralded Buddy Gil.

Buddy Gil defeated surprising Indian Express by a head in an all-out stretch battle that didn't include 8-5 second choice Kafwain, who was third, 2 1/4 lengths behind, or 3-2 favorite Atswhatimtalknbout, who was fourth, beaten by 3 1/2 lengths. The final time for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, contested at 1 1/8 mile, was 1:49 1/5

Stevens warned everyone who would listen that the colt was ready to put forth his best effort. But the gelded son of Eastern Echo, winner of the San Felipe (gr. II) by a nose over Atswhatimtalknbout, was overlooked in the nine-horse field, going off at better than 6-1.

"When I won this race the first time (with Winning Colors in 1988), I thought it was great to win a big race like this," Stevens said. "I could never imagine winning two or three, much less nine and breaking Shoemaker's record."

Buddy Gil is owned by Desperado Stables, Don McFadden, Charlie Johnson, Rogers Seversen and Tom Schriber and trained by Jeff Mullins. The victory was Mullins' first in a grade I race.

Stevens had Buddy Gil in midpack through the early going as Ocean Terrace, running from the gate on the extreme inside with pressure from Indian Express, went quickly through fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 4/5. But Ocean Terrace backed up quickly as they hit the final turn and Bob Baffert's Indian Express took control briefly while being chased by stablemates Domestic Dispute and Kafwain.

Domestic Dispute, stuck on the extreme outside early, ran out of gas while Buddy Gil moved into contention for the lead in the stretch. Kafwain was driving as Atswhatimtalknbout started his patented late run.

But Kafwain couldn't match strides through the lane with Indian Express and Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout flattened out after starting his sweeping move, leaving Indian Express, with young rider Tyler Baze riding, and Buddy Gil to fight it out. Buddy Gil got to the lead by a half-length inside of the eighth pole and was in a full drive to the wire to barely hold off Indian Express.

While exciting to watch, the final eighth was run in :13 1/5.

"He was coughing at the eighth pole because he was getting so much dirt kicked back at him. I felt he was starting to find another gear," Stevens said.

"To win this race for Jeff Mullins and Donnie McFadden, guys I've known for many years, makes it even more special. To get a shot at the Kentucky Derby for them -- it's hard to put into words what that's gonna mean."

Maybe even more amazing than the winner's race was the one turned in by Indian Express, whose only U.S. start after two victories in Panama was a fast-closing fourth-place effort in the San Pedro at Santa Anita on March 22.

"He can run man, he's amazing."Baze said. "After I rode him a couple of weeks ago I told Bob (Baffert) he's got a long stride and a big kick. Bob said, 'What do you think about the Santa Anita Derby?' I said 'I think he'll win it or at least he'll run very good in it.' And he ran like I thought he would. He just got a little tired. It was his first time trying two turns. I mean, he went form six furlongs to a mile-and-an-eighth. He's going to be fitter for the next one and I wouldn't be surprised if he ran a lot better."

Buddy Gil, now on a three-race winning streak (he and Stevens also won the grade III Baldwin on the Santa Anita turf on Feb. 23), was a late nomination to the Triple Crown. Mullins, who is winning at a 32 percent clip at the current meeting, said afterward that the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) is next for Buddy Gil. He won for the fifth time in nine career starts while earning $450,000 for his owners to push his career bankroll to $729,455.

"It's an unbelievable feeling winning this race," said Mullins. "I had all the confidence in my horse, even though I didn't know we had it won until he hit the wire. (Buddy Gil) is so honest and gives all his heart every single time. He's just a pleasure to train and does everything right. I am so proud of him."

Billingsley Creek Ranch bred Buddy Gil in Kentucky.

"We're definitely thinking Derby for him, but we have to get him back to the barn and make sure everything is all right with him before we can make that kind of decision," Mullins said. "Four weeks is a good time between this race and then, so we'll just have to take it one day at a time. He definitely earned his chance to be there, though."

Ron Ellis, trainer of Atswhatimtalknbout, said he's planning on going to Kentucky as well.

"I'll have to check out the earnings and things like that, and see what our chances are of getting in, but a mile and a quarter certainly suits him well," Ellis said. "I think this race just wasn't his day today. David (Flores) said he didn't have a lot of run in him today. Maybe he worked a little too quick the other day (March 31, five furlongs in :58.80), who knows. I thought he was in a perfect spot. They were going reasonably quick up front and he was galloping along."

Stevens' other Santa Anita Derby wins came with Point Given, 2001; General Challenge, 1999; Indian Charlie, 1998; Larry The Legend, 1995; Brocco, 1994; Personal Hope, 1993, Mister Frisky, 1990, and Winning Colors, 1988

The winner paid $14.60, $5.80 and $3.80. Indian Express returned $21.60 and $7.80. Kafwain's show price was $3.20. The $2 exacta was worth $283.60.

(Chart, Equibase)