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Dramatic Turn
Tim Layden
April 14, 2003
Buddy Gil's win at Santa Anita lands him a lead role in the Derby
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April 14, 2003

Dramatic Turn

Buddy Gil's win at Santa Anita lands him a lead role in the Derby

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Moviemakers know all about script revisions. Take last Saturday, for instance. The Santa Anita Derby, the last West Coast prep for the May 3 Kentucky Derby, was hyped as the race in which Atswhatimtalknbout would cement his place among the Churchill Downs favorites. His story would be writ large for a month, focusing on the fact that he is part-owned by three Hollywood power couples connected with the making of the upcoming movie Seabiscuit.

That script was shredded in the less than two minutes required to run last Saturday's race. With Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, one of the three couples who bought 10% of Atswhatimtalknbout in March, watching, their 3-2 favorite ran a dull, unthreatening fourth.

Yet moviemakers also know this: Where one story dies, another is born. The winner of the Santa Anita Derby was the gelding Buddy Gil, a modestly bred grinder who was foaled in Kentucky but learned to race on a farm in Hagerman, Idaho, and who wasn't eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby until his five owners made him a supplemental entry after his upset win in the San Felipe on March 16. And Buddy Gil has his own Seabiscuit connection: His rider is Gary Stevens, who plays jockey George Wolff in the movie.

Buddy Gil's latest win earned the horse respect for his toughness, just as it invited suspicion for his plodding finish. Stevens put Buddy Gil, who went off at 6-1, in a comfortable sixth in the nine-horse field before letting him loose on the turn for home. Buddy Gil held off Indian Express by a head but ran the last three furlongs in a plodding 39[1/5], suggesting that classier closers could nail him or that the additional furlong in the 1�-mile Kentucky Derby will be too much.

Then again. Buddy Gil has already beaten considerable odds. Donnie McFadden, a Southern California native who moved to Idaho 33 years ago, broke Buddy Gil at his Billingsley Creek Ranch in Hagerman. The gelding needed three tries to break his maiden last fall, and after running seventh in the Golden Gate Derby on Jan. 11, his owners sent him from Northern California to Santa Anita to work with trainer Jeff Mullins, 40, a rising star. Buddy Gil won a grass sprint on Feb. 23 and then the San Felipe.

Stevens rode Buddy Gil in each of the horse's last three races, a sweet streak for a jockey who has endured two extended breaks in the last three years—in 2000 with a chronic knee injury and last fall while shooting Seabiscuit. More prophetically, Stevens and Mullins started their careers at bush-league tracks in Idaho. Their families are friends, their roots intertwined. "Those connections make this very important to me," says Stevens. "It almost feels like destiny"

They make movies about that sort of thing.

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