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Buddy, Can You End a Drought?

Buddy Gil will try to become the first gelding to win a Kentucky Derby since 1929.

May 01, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky — LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The first time Gary Stevens rode Buddy Gil, they won the Baldwin Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 23.

Buddy Gil might have been for sale then, so Stevens, with the approval of trainer Jeff Mullins, made a call or two to prospective buyers.

"He's a nice horse, Gary," one of them told Stevens, "but we never buy geldings."

That's how Stevens found out that he rode a castrated horse, a horse that had been gelded before he made his first start as a 2-year-old. Donnie McFadden, whose farm is in Idaho, bred Buddy Gil and routinely gelds most of his young horses.

Come Saturday, and the 129th Kentucky Derby, Buddy Gil will be in a position to end the gelding hex at Churchill Downs. Seven geldings have won the Derby, but none since Clyde Van Dusen -- whose trainer was also Clyde Van Dusen -- in 1929. Since then, 74 geldings have run in the Derby, with the best finishes four second-place efforts, including those by Best Pal (1991), Prairie Bayou (1992) and Cavonnier (1996).

Actually, there are two geldings running in this Derby. Joining Buddy Gil in the 17-horse field is Funny Cide, who ran second, beaten by a half-length, against Derby favorite Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial. Funny Cide, trained by Barclay Tagg, comes with a double whammy. He was bred in New York, which has never produced a Derby winner.

"Geldings usually stay around longer because they can't breed," Tagg said. "I love geldings. If this one stays around till he's a 9-year-old, that's all right with me."

Since the Baldwin, Stevens has ridden Buddy Gil twice. The three-time Derby winner is three for three with the horse, the other wins coming in the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby.

"There are a lot of similarities between this horse and Silver Charm," said Stevens, referring to his 1997 Derby winner. "This horse is more athletic, I think. But Silver Charm had one thing going for him that this horse doesn't have. Silver Charm's won a Derby already."

Although students of time have been critical of Buddy Gil's clocking in the Santa Anita Derby -- his 1:49 1/5 for 1 1/8 miles was the second slowest in the last 11 years -- Stevens still feels that the race moved his horse forward. The bleeding from the nostrils, Stevens said, was incidental and overplayed, and he adds that the track was playing slow because it was sandier than usual.

"I've never been around a 3-year-old who's as professional as this one," Stevens said. "He's a machine. If he runs Saturday the way he worked [five furlongs Monday in :59 3/5], I think he's got a hell of a shot."

Noting Stevens' remarks was Bob Baffert, who has trained three of the last six Derby winners, including Silver Charm, and who'll try to win Saturday's race with Indian Express, who was second to Buddy Gil in the Santa Anita Derby.

"If Gary's high on a horse, the rest of us ought to pay attention," Baffert said.

Mullins, a Utah-born trainer who kicked around minor tracks before he began testing the Southern California circuit in 2001, finished 15th here last year with Lusty Latin, his first Derby starter. His barn at Santa Anita is heavy with claiming horses, yet he has been winning at a 33% clip this year. Like Stevens, Mullins is undefeated with Buddy Gil. The horse was trained by Chuck Jenda in Northern California before his owners -- McFadden and his four partners -- sent him to Mullins early this year.

Mullins takes no notice of Buddy Gil's status as a gelding.

"Good fillies run without [testicles] too, and they seem to do all right," Mullins said.

Racing has a love-hate relationship with geldings. When a horse is castrated, you're usually left with a more tractable horse, but there are no stud-fee residuals when his career is over. Castration, which is done with a surgical instrument appropriately called an emasculator, can be done in a horse's stall, and usually costs between $150 and $300.

For 39 years, until 1957, geldings were not allowed to run in the Belmont Stakes, the last of the Triple Crown races, because the New York racing establishment didn't want to risk diluting the breed. In 1985, Creme Fraiche became the first -- and only -- gelding to win the Belmont.

Geldings are still not allowed in the English Triple Crown -- the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger -- as well as several other major races in England.

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