factors led to eye-popping win
By Andrew Beyer -The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - 5/4/2009 - After Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby, all reports
of the race noted the 50-1 payoff was the second highest in the race's
history. Even so, most casual fans probably did not appreciate the
magnitude of this incomprehensible upset.
Because many people blindly bet on longshots in the Derby, even
hopeless horses rarely go off at odds higher than 50-1. Mine That Bird
deserved to be 200-1. This was one of the biggest upsets in the
history of American racing. In my four decades of covering the sport,
it ranks as one of the two most mystifying results in a major stakes
race, along with Canonero II's victory in the 1971 Derby.
For devotees of speed figures - which usually have been a reliable
gauge of Derby horses - this result was especially hard to explain.
Since the publication of the Beyer Speed Figures, the weakest horse to
win the Derby was Giacomo, who had never earned a figure higher than
98 before he scored his 50-1 upset in 2005. Yet Giacomo looked like a
superhorse compared with Mine That Bird, whose best lifetime figure
was the 81 he recorded while losing an obscure stakes race in New
Mexico. His figure of 105 in the Derby represented a 17-length
How did it happen? I put that question Sunday to a few of the people
whose opinions I respect the most: professional handicappers Maury
Wolff and Paul Cornman; New York Racing Association TV analyst Andy
Serling; and ESPN commentator Randy Moss. With their help, I have
tried to fashion an explanation for Saturday's events.
It's not a simple explanation, but as Moss said, "What happened was a
perfect storm of situations that added up to give you a wacky result."
These were the elements of the perfect storm:
* The Derby field was weak and the best horses delivered poor
performances on the sloppy track.
* Racing on or near the rail was an advantage at Churchill Downs on
Saturday, and jockey Calvin Borel took advantage of the conditions by
keeping Mine That Bird on the rail.
* Mine That Bird obviously relished the sloppy track, and he evidently
possessed more talent than his past performances indicated.
* The two outstanding members of the 3-year-old crop, I Want Revenge
and Quality Road, had been knocked out of the Derby by injuries; I
Want Revenge was scratched on the morning of the race. In their
absence, nobody possessed rock-solid credentials.
Even in a normal year, few horses deliver peak performances in the
Derby - it's an extraordinarily difficult and stressful race. Over a
sloppy track, even fewer horses fire their best shots. On Saturday,
Friesan Fire, the favorite, barely picked up his feet and lost by more
than 40 lengths. Dunkirk, the second choice, lost by more than 20.
Almost nobody besides the winner ran well. If Mine That Bird hadn't
been in the field, the winning speed figure for the Derby would have
been 95 - by far the lowest ever for a Triple Crown event.
Besides having trouble with the sloppy track, many of the horses in
the Derby were compromised by the bias of the Churchill racing strip.
Most of the winners Saturday spent all or part of their journeys near
the rail, and nobody won by circling the field. This was no secret:
ESPN's commentators were talking about the bias all afternoon and
asking jockeys about it. But few of the riders in the Derby tried to
take advantage of the rail, except for Borel, whose propensities have
earned him the nickname "Bo-Rail." His performance was almost a
duplicate of his rail-skimming ride aboard Street Sense in the 2007
Derby. Wolff observed: "With any other rider, Mine That Bird doesn't
get that trip."
The bias wasn't so strong that it was propelling bad horses to
victory. There hadn't been any absurd results on the Churchill card
before the Derby. In the Derby, jockey Kent Desormeaux also stayed on
the rail with his mount, Hold Me Back, and he made a strong move down
the backstretch and into the turn before his mount faltered badly. So
the winner needed some talent to take advantage of his ground-saving
Presumably Mine That Bird improved because he relished the sloppy
track - something no handicapper could have anticipated before the
race. But the gelding may have also been a better horse than he looked
on paper. After the Derby, I reviewed the films of his previous races.
In both of his starts this spring at New Mexico's Sunland Park, his
jockey had made ill-judged, premature moves to vie for the lead. In
both races he fought tenaciously before he faded in the stretch. I
would imagine some handicappers in New Mexico were eagerly waiting to
bet him the next time he ran. However, no rational handicapper could
have considered these trips a harbinger of a victory in the Kentucky
Mine That Bird's win will be popularly regarded as the result of a
once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm. Probably this opinion is correct;
probably the gelding will never win another major race. However, I can
remember that the other utterly implausible Derby winner, Canonero II,
was regarded the same way. Two weeks later he won the Preakness and
forced all of the doubters to revise their opinion that the Derby was