By Craig Harzmann, The Blood-Horse, October 30, 1999
Six thousand bucks may seem insignificant these days, when our world is dominated by millionaire athletes and billionaire executives. It can still get you something, though. A high-performance, albeit used, vehicle, for example. A vacation to your fantasy destination. The complete Pokemon card collection.
Steven Gula will say you can get quite a few gallons of jet fuel for that kind of money. Or maybe, just maybe, if you're in the right place at the right time, you can get your hands on a dream.
Gula has spent a great deal of time supplying fuel to major airlines worldwide, but now he's going full-throttle himself with the suitably named Mula Gula. His flight of fancy climbed to another level on Oct. 23 at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, as Gula's big, bad son of Lil E. Tee bounded home to take the $250,000 Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) over the reliable Eagleton.
"I wanted that so bad," said Gula, shaking with excitement. "To have this horse win this race the way he did--driving--what can you say? I'm on a cloud nine. Maybe a cloud 10, if there is one."
Gula and 'Gula, man and horse, are the latest in the long line of unsuspecting personalities, another feel-good story about a bargain-basement buy turned golden. This one, however, comes with a twist.
"I never really wanted to get into horse racing because I never met anybody who made any money in this," explained Gula. "I gave an agent friend of mine, Dana Halvorson, a budget of $25,000 at Fasig-Tipton in '96, hoping to never hear from him again."
Fortunately, he did. Halvorson astounded Gula by dropping just a portion of the funds for a handsome bay colt, the son of a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner no less. From there, the tale took wing.
Gula fondly recalls those weekend trips to the farm with his son, Bryan, watching together as the youngster grew into a full-fledged athlete. Mula Gula began competing at Emerald Downs, a short drive from Gula's residence near Seattle, and gave his owner quite a thrill when he chose to break his maiden in a small stakes. Eventually, he made his way into the Northern California barn of Jerry Hollendorfer, who gave him the once-over and liked what he saw.
"I called the owner right away and I told him I really liked the looks of this horse," Hollendorfer explained. "I told him I didn't know what kind of a runner I could make him, but he did look like a runner to me, and he had all the attributes of a horse that could run."
It was a switch to grass a few months later that truly allowed Mula Gula to burgeon. In the nine-furlong Derby, he met a capable bunch, and Team Gula's concerns of a counterfeit pace were legitimate. They were also eliminated instantly by Fighting Falcon, as the Manila colt stole away at the start, building a sizable advantage through an opening quarter in :23.40.
Gary Stevens, in his first collaboration with Mula Gula, felt his colt relaxing nicely beneath him, and they followed along in third, just off Outstanding Hero.
Fighting Falcon's lead began to dwindle after a :47.35 half, as Outstanding Hero and Mula Gula began a simultaneous attack from the outside. Behind them, ready to join the hunt, came Eagleton and 5-2 favorite Prime Timber.
Oustanding Hero was the first to crack, bowing out when the real running commenced. Mula Gula fiddled around until Stevens found the colt's massive stride passing the eighth pole. There, he pulled away powerfully, leaving Eagleton to deal with European newcomers Super Quercus and Manndar. Under the wire a little over a length clear, Mula Gula covered the distance in 1:46.67, the quickest running since In Excess carried Stevens to victory in 1990.
"He's got brilliant acceleration for a big horse, but he gets a little but lost when he gets in front," smiled Stevens. "He's only going to get better. He's a Breeders' Cup-type for next year, most definitely."
This assessment promptly sent Gula into fits of giddiness. "That made my heart pound about 300 beats a minute," he laughed. In the near future, however, Santa Anita's Strub Series is an option. But Hollendorfer is inclined to move at a conservative pace. Mula Gula has been defeated just once on turf, his triumphs so far including a division of Del Mar's Oceanside Stakes and a smashing effort last time out in the Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Derby (gr. IIIT).
"He did the race last month really easy, and I was very proud of him," Hollendorfer said. "That's why we considered this one. I wouldn't say he did this easy, but he did it well, and I'm very pleased with the way he handled himself."
The praise also cascaded from Stevens.
"He reminds me a lot of Ladies Din at this time last year," said Stevens, comparing the newest model to the '98 Oak Tree Derby Winner. "Tons of ability, a long-striding colt that's going to mature with time. He really doesn't know what he's doing right now."
When it comes to racing, the same could be said of Gula a couple of years back. Now there's no doubt.
"This is my very first horse," he said. "I'm just learning the business. What do you want for $6,000? I can honestly say that I am having a lot of fun."