​ Spooky Mulder - winning the hard way

By Bill Heller

Came again on rail
            Dug in gamely on rail
            Dug in gamely inside
            Came again inside
            Set pace, resolute
            Resolute, prevailed
            Determined outside
            Dug in between rivals
            Between, came again
            Those aren’t your typical, mundane DRF comments. Then again, there is nothing typical or mundane about Spooky Mulder, who has won 31 of those 78 starts. He also has 16 seconds, four thirds and earnings topping $850,000 despite a 1-for-18 stakes record. Spooky Mulder has made his money the hard way: on the lead or pressing the pace in claiming sprint races at 17 different racetracks throughout the East and Midwest under 24 different riders. He is the ultimate claiming warrior.  From June 26th, 2002, when he won his sixth lifetime start in a $12,500 claimer at Churchill Downs, Spooky Mulder made at least one start a month for 35 consecutive months, one month short of three years.While he was most effective at six (17-for-49) and  6 ½ furlongs (6-for-11), he had four wins and three seconds in seven starts at seven furlongs and won both of his starts at one mile.

On wet tracks, he had eight wins in 14. He didn’t let chronic foot problems or a near-fatal infection compromise his career. Courage, durability, versatility and a 40 percent career winning percentage. What else is there for a Thoroughbred to accomplish?

On September 2nd, just two weeks shy of the sixth anniversary of his winning career debut at Turfway Park in 2001, Spooky Mulder shook off a 6 ½ month layoff to take an optional $50,000 claimer at Delaware Park by 3 ¾ lengths wire-to-wire in 1:08 4/5, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 103. That’s fast, especially for a nine-year-old, but nowhere near his career best of 116 “The one word that would describe him is amazing,” his current trainer Scott Lake said. “It’s the only word you can use to describe him.”

 Lake, once again battling Steve Asmussen for the national lead in training victories, knows Spooky Mulder better than anyone, having claimed him three times, for $25,000, $50,000 and $75,000, and having had him claimed away for $65,000 and $100,000. “When you lose him, you hate it,” Lake said. “You feel sick, but we were running him in spots where he could win, running him where he belongs.” Spooky Mulder belongs in the winner’s circle, and he seems to realize that. “He’s the man and he knows it,” Lake said. “If you ever see him in the morning, he struts.”

 Lake was anything but enamored with Spooky Mulder when he first saw him in the paddock at Canterbury Park in Minnesota on July 19th, 2003. Lake was running Pelican Beach against Spooky Mulder in the $48,000 Claiming Crown Express. “We were standing in the paddock in July,” Lake said. “He was sweating and washed out and I said, ‘Who is this rat?’” Then Lake looked at the Form and saw that this rat had already won nine races. “I said, ‘I have to wait for him to be put back in a claimer,’” Lake said. “Anybody who wins that many races and looks like that has to be a winner.” That afternoon at Canterbury, Pelican Beach finished second to Landler by a head, 3 ½ lengths ahead of Spooky Mulder, who rallied from seventh to finish third after breaking unusually slow.

 Most of his career, he’s been freaky fast. And while he has not acquitted himself well in stakes company, he did knock off 2005 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Silver Train in a three-horse race at Aqueduct on April 20th, 2006, when he was claimed from Lake by trainer Pat Reynolds for $100,000. Spooky Mulder won two more starts at that lofty claiming level for Reynolds before Lake claimed him back for $75,000 on Nov. 19th, 2006, at Aqueduct, another race Spooky Mulder won. He finished the year with six wins, three seconds and one third from 13 starts, earning $236,705. Not bad for an eight-year-old claimer. Asked why he claimed him yet again, Lake said, “Because he’s awesome.”

Nearly a year later, Lake believes Spooky Mulder has more victories left in him. “Knock on wood, he has a club foot and a little bit of an ankle, but other than that, he’s remained pretty sound for us,” Lake said.
A son of Brunswick out of Suana, by Jade Hunter, Spooky Mulder was bred by Jeff Allen in Kentucky. Fittingly, Spooky Mulder debuted in a $30,000 maiden claimer at Turfway Park, winning the 6 ½-furlong race by a length and a half. He made just one other start as a three-year-old, finishing a tiring fifth in an allowance race. He returned to the races the following February and began carving out one of the most successful careers a claimer has ever had.  Lake crossed paths with Spooky Mulder in the 2003 Claiming Crown, and, true to his word, did claim him later that year. But Lake waited to do so.

After the third at Canterbury, Spooky Mulder captured a starter allowance at Ellis Park, then finished a badly tiring sixth in a $45,000 claimer at Turfway Park. Trainer Don Habeeb dropped Spooky Mulder to $25,000, and on October 10th, 2003, Lake claimed him. Spooky Mulder finished second by 1 ¾ lengths in that final start for Habeeb and wasted little time verifying Lake’s wisdom in adding him to his stable. Following a game second in a $35,000 claimer at Aqueduct - his lone start without Lasix - Spooky Mulder won a $30,000 claimer wire-to-wire by 13 ¾ lengths in 1:08 2/5 at Aqueduct, November 23rd, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 116. Spooky Mulder twice won an optional $75,000 claimer, one of them at one mile. That induced Lake to try stretching Spooky Mulder out to a mile and an eighth to contest the 2004 Claiming Crown Jewel at Canterbury. Sent off at 4-1, Spooky Mulder finished 11th by 40 lengths. He’d been sixth by 33 ¼ lengths in a previous attempt at nine furlongs.

Showing no ill effect, Spooky Mulder won his next start, a $65,000 claimer at seven furlongs at Saratoga when he was claimed by Mark Shuman. In his first start for his new connections in a $100,000 claimer at Saratoga, attempting to go wire-to-wire at six furlongs, Spooky Mulder was passed at the top of the stretch, only to surge again on the rail and defeat Secret Run by a neck in a snappy 1:09.  It was a gutsy, signature performance, one which resonated with fans, bettors and horsemen. But by the following April, Spooky Mulder was dropped back to $50,000, and one of Lake’s owners, Ben Mondello, a 34-year-old accountant in New York City, wanted to own the gritty gelding. “I had just started a business relationship with Scott, and he was on his honeymoon,” Mondello said. “I called him up and told him to take the horse for $50,000. He’s a racehorse. He wants to win. This horse doesn’t like to win unless he’s in a fight.”

Mondello and Lake couldn’t have known Spooky Mulder would immediately be involved in a fight for his life.“He had an infection is his upper hoof and it spread all the way up to his tendon sheath,” Lake said. “We sent him to the New Jersey clinic and (Dr.) Patty Hogan.” Hogan called Lake and told him she was concerned about Spooky Mulder’s life, and that any treatment might be costly. “I said, ‘Do whatever you have to do to save his life,’” Lake said. “She said, ‘That’s all I needed to hear.’ She called me at Gulfstream Park eight days later. She said, ‘I think it’s good news.’ She did a phenomenal job saving his life. Mondello agreed: “Patty saved his life.”

Spooky Mulder was back to the races exactly three months after the April 10th claim in a $75,000 claimer at Belmont Park. “I said to Scott, ‘What do you think?’” Mondello said. “He said, ‘I haven’t trained him that hard.’”Hard enough. Spooky Mulder won by a length and a half in 1:09. Lake tried to win a stakes race with him, but the best Spooky Mulder could do was finish second in three of them, the Icecapade at Monmouth and the Brutally Frank and Paumonok at Aqueduct. After the last one, January 28th, 2006, Lake freshened his horse and he returned two months later to win a $75,000 claimer. On April 20th, 2006, Spooky was entered in an optional $100,000 claimer. He faced two opponents: multiple graded stakes winner Silver Train and Primary Suspect.

 Silver Train had won the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint in his final two starts in 2005, and would win the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and the Grade 2 Tom Fool Handicap after taking on Spooky Mulder, who spotted Silver Train two pounds and went off at 9-5. Silver Train was 1-2. On the lead, Spooky Mulder was under constant pressure from Primary Suspect. Silver Train shadowed the top pair then tried pouncing on them in the stretch. Spooky Mulder refused to give in, holding Silver Train safe by three-quarters of a length with Primary Suspect a nose back in third after six furlongs in 1:09 2/5.

 “That was the day we lost him,” Mondello said. Spooky Mulder had been claimed for $100,000 by trainer Pat Reynolds for owner Paul Pompa, Jr. “After the race, an owner called me up and said, ‘You might be one of the luckiest owners ever; you just had an eight-year-old gelding claimed for $100,000,’” Mondello said. “I told him, ‘I’d rather give the $100,000 back and keep him.’ It was like losing a family member.” Pompa had discussed claiming Spooky Mulder with Reynolds. “I said, ‘I don’t know where to go if we claim him,’” Reynolds said. “He called me from the sales at Keeneland. He said, ‘There are people bidding $800,000, $900,000 on yearlings here who might never get broken. This is a ready-made horse running for $100,000. Buy him.’”

            Reynolds claimed Spooky Mulder and is happy that he did. “It turned out to be a real gratifying experience,” he said. “He was like a pet. He knew his name. If you said, ‘Spooky,’ he turned his head.”His head was fine; his wheels were not. “He had terrible feet,” Reynolds said. “One was curved and one was clubbed. And he had a history of shoeing problems. But that’s taken care of by a blacksmith. He did not throw a single shoe while I had him.” Reynolds had him for seven starts, three of them wins and one a painfully close second by a head to Around the Cape in the $75,000 Lure Stakes at Belmont. It would have given Spooky Mulder that elusive first stakes victory. “He almost accomplished something,” Reynolds said. “He got beat by a head. The horse knows how to read. If he doesn’t see dollar signs next to it (for a claiming race), he doesn’t think it’s a race.”

            Spooky Mulder’s final race for Reynolds was in a $75,000 claimer at Aqueduct, November 19th at Aqueduct. Under Eibar Coa, Spooky Mulder found himself in a speed duel for six furlongs. Stonewood, a hard-hitter in his own right, was on the rail with Spooky Mulder right next to him. Stonewood held Spooky Mulder off by a half a length through a first quarter in :22 2/5, then spurted clear by a length and a half after a half in :46. But Spooky Mulder came back for more. Then the two were joined on the outside by Morine’s Victory. Spooky Mulder was passed again on the outside by Morine’s Victory, yet came right back in between horses, winning a three-horse photo by a neck over Morine’s Victory with Stonewood just another head back in third. “He was beaten,” Reynolds said. “Anybody who saw that race, even the people who were second and third, couldn’t stop talking about it. They said, ‘If we have to lose, we don’t mind losing to a horse like that.’ Only a horse who knows what winning is would run a race like that. He was an unbelievable animal to be around.”

            He wouldn’t be around Reynolds any more. Lake had claimed him back for $75,000. Reynolds still misses Spooky Mulder. “I treated him every day like the class animal he is, and he reciprocated,” Reynolds said. “I wish I had a couple two-year-olds like him in the barn.” Re-united with Lake, Spooky Mulder won one of four starts before getting a deserved rest from mid-February to September 2nd when he resurfaced at Delaware Park in an optional $50,000 claimer. “His ankle was flaring up on him,” Lake said.

            By the time Spooky Mulder returned to the races, Mondello had claimed Spooky Mulder’s four-year-old, less accomplished half-sister, Samantha Mulder. Mondello claimed the four-year-old filly for $15,000 last June 17th, when she finished sixth in a maiden claimer at Churchill Downs. Lake gave the filly a seven-week layoff and she won her first start for Mondello, a maiden claimer at the same level, by 6 ¼ lengths at Delaware Park. She subsequently finished second and fifth in a starter allowance and $12,500 claimer, respectively.  How would Spooky Mulder fare off a 6 ½-month layoff? He was sent off at 5-1 and wired five rivals off sizzling fractions of :22 1/5 and :44 4/5. He crossed the wire 3 ¾ lengths clear after six furlongs in 1:08 4/5, his 30th career victory. “It’s unbelievable,” Mondello said. “He’s a racehorse. He wants to win. Somebody told me after the race, ‘You might be lucky enough to get to the Kentucky Derby, but you’ll never have another horse like this again.’ He’s probably right. The heart that this horse has, forget about it.”

In his next start, the Hockessin Stakes at Delaware Park October 6th, Spooky Mulder uncharacteristically settled in third, then gamely rallied to win by a head in 1:10, finally securing his first stakes victory. Spooky Mulder subsequently finished a tiring fifth by a length and three-quarters in the Vincent A. Moscarelli Memorial Stakes and third in an optional claimer at Laurel Park on Wednesday. November 21st, the day before Thanksgiving.
    Lake is thankful he’s gotten to train this incredible claimer. He thinks he understands the secret of Spooky Mulder’s success: “He enjoys what he’s doing. He’s happy. That’s what keeps him going.”

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