LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Her face was splattered with mud. Sweat dripped from her eyebrows. When Kristin Mulhall trudged to Clocker's Corner that morning at Santa Anita Park, her life changed.
She was 19, galloping horses at the California track and training three of her own. She was hot and thirsty.
At Clocker's Corner, an outside terrace where horsemen and fans gather during morning workouts, she ran into her father and asked him for money to buy water.
Her father, Richard Mulhall, a veteran horseman, was talking with a group of men. One took particular interest in Kristin. He started asking her questions. Did she drink? Did she take drugs?
"I thought he was nuts," Kristin says.
The man, Steve Taub, had come to Clocker's Corner to talk to a bloodstock agent about selling his last six horses. He had soured on racing.
"I wasn't having any fun with it anymore," he says. "To go to the turf club and have a $20 salad had gotten pretty empty."
But in this dirty-faced girl, he saw light. He found hope. He asked her whether she'd train his horses. She said she would.
Now Kristin Mulhall, 21, and Steve Taub, 49, have come to Churchill Downs with a hard-charging gray horse named Imperialism to run Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.
Imperialism is a throwback, a veteran of 15 races in an era when Derby horses often have a third that many. He has a sunken right eye, a birth defect, from which he can see but only partially -- unlike Derby entrant Pollard's Vision, who is blind in his right eye.
This implausible partnership of Mulhall, Taub and Imperialism could rewrite history. Mulhall could become the first woman and youngest trainer to win the Derby. The youngest is James Rowe Sr., who was 24 when he won with Hindoo in 1881.
"She's a throwback herself," Taub says of Mulhall. "If you watch National Velvet, you see Elizabeth Taylor as the sweet, cute girl with the horse. That reminds me of Kristin. She reminds me of an old movie."
Taub may be a throwback, too -- to innocence and youth.
"I got divorced 17 years ago after my wife asked me, `Will you please grow up?' " Taub says. "I told her, `No, I will never grow up.' I love being a kid. I just adore it. ... I'm full of enthusiasm on the positive. If there's a negative, I take a hike."
Taub owns a large car-leasing company. He used to own car dealerships in and around Santa Monica, Calif. He jogs to Churchill Downs from his hotel. Then he jogs around the backstretch. He works out three hours a day.
"I'm over the top on my physiology," Taub says. "Most people call me crazy."
Taub is certainly a free spirit, and choosing a 19-year-old trainer was unconventional, even though Mulhall has as much experience with horses as anyone her age possibly could. She was born into the horse world.
"It's where I was raised, basically, in a barn," she says.
Racing in her blood
Her father was a trainer for three decades before going to work for the late Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, owner of The Thoroughbred Corp. The senior Mulhall was racing manager of the prince's stable that campaigned War Emblem and Point Given, winners of four Triple Crown races between them.
The younger Mulhall spent time at the track but gravitated toward show horses. She took horses from the track and trained them to jump fences in the ring. She bought and sold horses. She was so accomplished on horseback that she hoped to ride in the Olympics.
But in June 2001 she punctured her arm on a nail in a tack room. The arm became infected. While sidelined from riding, she hung around Del Mar. She eventually started galloping horses for trainer John Shirreffs.
Her father didn't want her on the backstretch by herself. He strongly favored her returning to the more secure and sophisticated world of show horses.
But the teenage Mulhall, by her own admission, is hard-headed. She always was.
She quarreled with her father about working on the backstretch until, finally, she moved out of his house, bought her own house at age 19 with money she'd saved from selling horses, bought two horses of her own and started training them.
"I'm the type of person, when I want to do something I just do it," Mulhall says. "I don't really care about what other people think."
`Nose of Pinocchio'
She had been training her horses a couple of months when she met Taub. He sent her three and then sent her three more. Even though her father didn't approve, Prince Salman did. He and Kristin had always been close; he was her godfather. He sent her horses. Now she has 42 -- and 23 employees.
Taub says "she's got the nose of Pinocchio when it comes to snooping out a horse," and at the beginning of the year she snooped one out in Florida. Imperialism had run 12 times in Florida -- on dirt, on turf, short, long. Mulhall liked the son of Langfuhr, who always broke slowly and usually came charging at the end. She thought he'd be a useful, multifaceted horse. She recommended Taub buy him. He did.