Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Trainer's approach is off the beaten track

Kentucky Derby: 21-year-old woman could make history Saturday

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Racing is a $17 billion industry, and the racing stables here with their Kentucky Derby horses are big-business prototypes. Thoroughbreds are scrutinized with science and spreadsheets, carefully medicated and drilled through exacting workouts.

Then there's the little lady kneeling gently in the stall, cooing her colts to sleep.

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Twenty-one-year-old Kristin Mulhall is a horse whisperer on the verge of history. In just her second year in the sport, she will saddle Imperialism in an attempt Saturday to become the first woman and the youngest trainer to win in the Derby's 130-year history.

A race that commands obsession in horsemen three times her age inspires in Mulhall mixed emotions.

"It's wonderful. If you told me a year ago I'd be here, I never would have believed you," she said. "... But right now, I feel guilty not being in California with my 37 other horses."

It's all about the horses. An animal lover since childhood, Mulhall approximates training with mothering. While her rivals crowd the rail each morning with stopwatches, Mulhall gets in the irons herself and instructs by instinct.

"You can tell what to do by when you take hold of the bridle," she said. "I change (workout) plans according to how they feel.

"As long as you have a happy horse, they'll give all they can for you."

Steve Taub, who counts Imperialism among 26 horses he owns all or part of in Mulhall's care, marvels at her intuition.

"She is the opposite of a programmed trainer," Taub said. "She reminds me of an artist with a canvas and an easel. ... With a horse, she is Roy Rogers 100 times over."

Mulhall grew up in the shadow of Santa Anita Park. Her father, Richard, had a long training career and was racing manager of The Thoroughbred Corp., owned by the late Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman.

Having owned as a child such animals as a pig, goat, llama, python and boa constrictor, Kristin was especially fond of horses. She was comfortable enough to nap in stalls with her father's thoroughbreds, and she still soothes them to sleep.

Mulhall became a star in the world of show-jumping horses, making six figures annually buying and selling them, and was proficient enough aboard them to rank as a 2004 Olympic hopeful.

But in 2001, she punctured her arm while hanging equipment on the wall of a barn. Out of competition for three months, she began galloping thoroughbreds and decided to get into training.

Dad was against it. But Mulhall said she was too hard-headed to heed the warning.

"She was at the top of the game in jumping," Richard said. "For her to switch into something different ... it's very difficult for anyone to start, let alone being female."

The prince helped her acquire her first horses. Taub met her and was floored, learning she arrives at the barn each day at 4:30 a.m. and even mixes the feed for the horses.

Mulhall said she sometimes overhears sexist comments, but top trainers Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel have praised her work.

"You have to be able to ignore the talk and go on with what you're doing," Mulhall said.

Jennifer Pedersen trains Song of the Sword, who also will run Saturday, and she and Mulhall are just the 10th and 11th females to saddle a Derby horse. The youngest winner was James Rowe Sr. (24) when he led Hindoo to victory in 1881.

Imperialism, who previously had won and placed three times each in 12 starts against lesser talent, has two firsts and a second in three races - all graded stakes - under Mulhall. She ranks 23rd this year in North America in purse earnings with $1.05 million.

"I never dreamed I'd accomplish this in my second year in racing," she said. "I remember last year, sitting in the dark (in early morning) looking at the Twin Spires, wondering if I'd ever be here in the Derby. I feel blessed."



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