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Young Kristin can make Derby history

Mar 30, 2004 3:54 AM

In the case of Kristin Mulhall and her father, Richard, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Thing is, the apple and the tree were far apart, at least in the beginning.

Kristin was a champion show horse rider while her father was a thoroughbred trainer. Now she is an overnight sensation in thoroughbred racing and could become the youngest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. But it took courage and a rebel streak to set the stage.

If she wins the 130th Run for the Roses on May 1 with a gray colt named Imperialism, Kristin Mulhall would not only be the first woman to train a Derby winner, at 21 she’d be the youngest, surpassing James Rowe Sr., who was 24 when he saddled Hindoo to capture the seventh Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1881. That’s 123 years ago, if you’re counting.

Nine women trainers have sent out Derby horses. Shelley Riley had the best finish with Casual Lies, who was second in 1992.

It’s only an act of fate that Mulhall is in the challenging field of thoroughbred training. It’s not because her father gave her a leg up. He was dead-set agin’ it, as Gabby Hayes would have put it. After his training days were over, Richard became racing manager for The Thoroughbred Corporation, which recently closed shop after a highly successful run that produced 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given and the 2002 Derby winner, War Emblem.

"My dad really didn’t want me at the race track," Kristin said. "He was against the whole deal in the beginning. He wanted me to keep going with show horses and was pretty upset when I made the move to the race horses. I actually ended up moving out of the house and everything. It was a battle when I started off. He didn’t want to support it all. He didn’t think the backside (of a race track) was a place for girls. He wanted me to try out for the Olympics and all that fun stuff.

"But I didn’t want to do it. I always wanted to train race horses. That’s where my head was and I’m kind of stubborn like that. When I make up my mind I just do what I want to do. So I moved out and bought three of my own horses, groomed them, cleaned their stalls, galloped them, did everything myself for two months."

Enter Steve Taub, long-time horse owner who dabbles at selling top of the line vehicles at his Santa Monica auto dealership.

"Then Steve saw me cleaning stalls and walking my horses and he gave me a couple horses," Kristin said. "That’s how it all started. Then the Prince (the late Prince Ahmed Salman, who headed up The Thoroughbred Corporation until his untimely death about two years ago) saw I had run a horse I trained and he got angry with my dad. The Prince felt my father should have supported me. So the Prince sent me two horses, one of which was Sentimental Value, who was my first winner and my first stakes winner.

"Right before he died, the Prince had a talk with my father and that’s when he started to support me as a trainer. He started helping me out, but he was never 100 percent for it."

An injury forced Kristin to give up show horses.

"I swore to God I’d never get out of show horses, but I hurt my arm really bad and couldn’t ride for a summer," she said. "Since then I’ve just hung around the race track and never left. I’ve been training a little over two years now. My dad was a trainer for so long and I was on the race track with him the whole time."

Fast-forward to 2004 and Imperialism, who was born with a sunken right eye and who had an undistinguished record at Calder Racecourse in Florida where he ran in claiming races before Taub bought him and gave him to Mulhall to train. The 3-year-old with the Silky Sullivan running style is unbeaten in two starts under Mulhall, winning the San Vicente Stakes at seven furlongs and the San Rafael Stakes at one mile, upsetting the previously undefeated Lion Heart in that one.

Next up is the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on Saturday.

"I’ve got some good owners and I was lucky to get Imperialism," Mulhall said. "He’s got an eye that’s kind of sunken into his head on the right side. He was born that way. I think his foot probably was up against his eye socket at birth and just pushed it in. He has vision in the eye, but he can only see things that are in front of him, not on his side."

Imperialism is a Kentucky-bred colt by Langfuhr that was running without distinction at Calder before he found new life in California. Overall, he has a 5-3-1 record from 15 starts, with earnings of $287,605.

Kristin is confident Imperialism can continue his success in the Santa Anita Derby. He has come from dead last to win his two stakes at Santa Anita.

"I don’t think he’ll have a problem at all," Mulhall said of the colt that was born at Farnsworth Farm in Kentucky on April 1, 2001 (that’s right, Imperialism is an April Fool foal). "He’s training great and he’s come out of each race better and better."

Meanwhile, Mulhall is not caught up in becoming the youngest trainer or the first woman to win a Derby. "I just kind of train my horses and go step by step," she said. "I don’t really pay attention to that stuff." Just what you’d expect from an authentic California girl, blonde hair and all, who was born in Pasadena and graduated from Mayfield Senior High in Pasadena, a few furlongs from Santa Anita.

Kristin Mulhall would make history of she wins the Kentucky Derby, but nevertheless, her independent bent already has helped her compile an enviable resume, especially for someone who’s only a pubescent 21.

Twenty-one. Hell, I’ve got ties older than that.

THE HOMESTRETCH: TVG and Youbet.com have "continued to expand their influence while XpressBet appears to have lost ground so far this year," according to a March 25 report from the California Horse Racing Board. For the first two months of this year, XpressBet handle of $9,425,650 declined 21 percent from the same period in 2003 while TVG handle among California home account wagering holders of $12,438,662 marked an 83 percent increase and Youbet.com’s handle of $13,983,724 was up 30 percent. Said CHRB vice chairman Roger Licht: "It’s interesting that TVG has no California product (does not offer wagering on Santa Anita or Golden Gate) but more California bettors are wagering out of state. The obvious explanation is television distribution. An emerging trend is the impact of TV content. People will bet what you show them."