Bird a longshot since birth
By Glenye Cain Oakford/ The Daily Racing Form
LEXINGTON, Ky. 5/8/2009- Peter Lamantia, co-breeder of Mine That Bird, watched
the Kentucky Derby from home in Toronto last Saturday. He didn't
harbor any real hopes the gelding would win, but he invited a handful
of friends over to watch the race.
One of the party had a Woodbine betting account and said she would bet
$100 on Mine That Bird.
"I said, 'We're not betting $100. We're not throwing money away
unnecessarily,' " Lamantia, 65, said. "So she said, 'Let's bet $10
across.' I told her, 'We're not betting $10 across.' We finally bet
$15: five to win, place, and show. The horse brought us back $450. I
cost her $5,000. Not for the life of me did I think he could win."
Mine That Bird's journey from $9,500 yearling to 50-1 Kentucky Derby
winner was an unlikely one that has made unexpected winners of his
many connections: breeders Phil and Judy Needham, Bill Betz, Peter
Lamantia, and Jim Blackburn, and owners Mike Allen and Dr. Leonard
All acknowledge they didn't expect Mine That Bird to win.
"I couldn't figure the race out," breeder Blackburn, 76, said. "My
question was, Is he just an off-track horse? Is he a late-developer? I
hope he's just maturing and getting better. Racing needed this. I'd
rather see a $9,500 horse win than a $3.7 million horse win."
:: More: Breeder's ties run deep in female line
Mine That Bird was foaled at the Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds farm on
Mt. Horeb Pike, north of Lexington. His breeders have known each other
for decades. Phil and Judy Needham and Bill Betz had a commercial
breeding operation, Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds, for 20 years before
parting company in late 2008. Lamantia and Chicagoan Jim Blackburn,
who owns the Assurance Agency insurance brokerage, are longtime
partners of Needham and Betz in the breeding business.
A late-season arrival on May 10, Mine That Bird was the first foal for
his dam, the unraced Smart Strike mare Mining My Own. He was also a
member of his sire Birdstone's first crop. Birdstone, a three-time
Grade 1 winner, was most famous as the horse that spoiled Smarty
Jones's Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, a distinction
that meant little in the commercial bloodstock market, except that
Birdstone's progeny might be able to go a distance.
Mining My Own was the product of a female family that produced talent
and size but also had had soundness problems.
"Mining My Own had a lot of quality at the track and showed a lot of
promise," said Betz, 51, who planned the mating that produced Mine
That Bird. "But one day we got a call that she had hurt herself and
wasn't going to be able to continue to train. When planning the
mating, knowing that family history, I wanted to breed her to
something that didn't dilute her strengths but strengthened her
weaknesses. I wanted to breed her to a horse that was sound, that had
quality, and that wasn't a massive horse."
With a sire and a dam that were both unproven in the breeding world,
Mine That Bird was something of an unknown quantity. But Judy Needham
assessed him fairly favorably.
"He had a cute little head and he was not real big," she said. "He
toed out quite a bit in his right front leg, which, you know, a lot of
foals aren't perfect when they're born. But they go through changes
and they can straighten up, so we were pretty encouraged."
She also liked Mine That Bird's attitude.
"What I remember most about him is, when he was a foal, he was always
feisty, getting into mischief, and playing," she said. "Very active,
like my boys when they were little. When we separated him from the
other yearlings, like we do three months before the sale, I'd look out
sometimes and he'd be running little laps around his paddock, like he
was training himself."
Blacksmith Victor Camp did some corrective trimming to lessen Mine
That Bird's toeing-out problem, and the colt grew into a presentable
product for Fasig-Tipton's October yearling auction in Kentucky. But
he wasn't perfect. A late foal, he needed some maturing. He still toed
out. His dam was unraced, something that might make buyers question
her soundness. And his sire wasn't as hot as some others that year.
Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds, Lamantia, and Blackburn consigned Mine
That Bird to the October yearling sale through the Highclere agency's
consignment, where Canadian trainer Dave Cotey spotted him. Cotey was
looking for inexpensive but promising prospects, and the partners'
Birdstone colt impressed him as a potentially useful runner. Cotey
bought him for $9,500.
"He wasn't a good sales horse because he toed out more than you'd like
to see, and he was small," Phil Needham, 67, explained.
"We thought he was an athletic horse with a few conformational things
that some people wouldn't like," Judy Needham said. "But we thought if
someone bought him and trained him to race, he had a pretty good
Cotey, in fact, did just that. Training Mine That Bird for a
partnership that included himself, Derek Ball, and Hugh Galbraith,
Cotey developed the gelding into Canada's juvenile champion for 2008.
He also had had the colt gelded, reportedly because Mine That Bird was
showing too much interest in the neighborhood fillies, a distraction
Mine That Bird first came to Stuart Angus's attention in the fall of
2008 when a colleague mentioned he might be on the market privately.
Angus was in his third year as a bloodstock and sales adviser at
Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., where hundreds of potential
public and private sales horses come across his desk each year.
"Nobody was really spending any money then, and I kind of had him on
the back burner," Angus said. "He looked like a real honest horse with
a lot of heart."
So when bloodstock agent Keith Crupper called Angus looking for a good
horse on behalf of Mike Allen's Double Eagle Ranch and Dr. Leonard
Blach's Buena Suerte Equine, Angus pitched Mine That Bird.
"Keith said they wanted an Oaks filly, and I said, 'Heck, I think I
might have a Derby horse,' and that's the god's honest truth," Angus
Cotey was asking $400,000 for his champion.
"There was no haggling," Mark Allen, 56, said. "They wanted $400,000,
and we paid it."
Despite Angus's enthusiastic sales pitch, Allen and Blach didn't have
Derby pretensions for their new acquisition. But Mine That Bird did
look like a racehorse they could have some fun with.
"In New Mexico, since we got the slots there's been a little more
opportunity for Thoroughbreds," Blach, a 74-year-old veterinarian,
said. "We looked at all of Mine That Bird's races and his ability to
run, and we looked at his trainers and talked to them, and we talked
to [previous jockey] Chantal Sutherland. We thought he was what we
were looking for."
Allen and Blach have been friends for a long time and have been
involved in horse racing and breeding together a number of times,
according to Blach. Both men own ranches in Roswell, N.M., and have
strong ties to the Quarter Horse racing world. Both had a fond desire
to win that sport's crown jewel, the All-American Futurity, but hadn't
done it in three decades of trying. And both had some Thoroughbred
holdings that they wanted to increase now that slot-machine revenue
was helping make Thoroughbred breeding and racing more profitable. As
luck would have it, one of the Thoroughbred stallions Blach stands at
his ranch, So Long Birdie, is a full brother to Birdstone - a fact
that made Mine That Bird all the more appealing to him.
Allen's racing history had been interrupted by an Alaskan sojourn that
involved him in a high-profile political scandal.
Allen's father, Bill, was the founder of VECO, an oil services company
that held contracts for Alaskan projects including the clean-up of the
Valdez oil spill in 1989; Mark Allen was a company director. Bill
Allen pleaded guilty in 2007 in a major Alaskan public corruption
scandal, but, as part of a plea deal, won immunity for Mark and other
family members from federal criminal charges, according to news
reports. VECO is now defunct after a 2007 sale to the engineering and
construction firm CH2M HILL.
"I've known Mark for 30 years," said Ralph Kinder, a former bloodstock
agent and furniture store owner who now serves as general manager for
Allen's Double Eagle Ranch. "I've bought and sold horses for him. When
he left to go to Alaska in the late '80s or early '90s, he had some of
the best broodmares in the Quarter Horse world. He called me up and
said, 'I've got to be gone in 30 days. Get rid of my horses.'
"I didn't see him for years. At the races one day at Ruidoso three
years ago, he comes up and tells me he bought a place in Roswell and
needs some help. He wanted to buy some mares, and it kind of grew from
"Truthfully, I thought we had a shot for second or third with Calvin
riding him, because he's not afraid of that rail," Kinder said. "He
needed a rider like Calvin. But I never dreamed he would beat 'em by
We all know what happened next. But very few, including Mine That
Bird's breeders, foresaw it.
"We were as shocked as everybody else was," said Betz.
Angus and others confessed they thought he might run midpack. Phil
Needham was so ambivalent about the gelding's chances that he skipped
the Derby in favor of a bicycle race, which, incidentally, he won. He
watched the Derby in a sports bar with Bena Halecky, a cycling
Needham and Halecky had a special reason to celebrate. When
Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds and partners sold Mining My Own at the 2008
Keeneland January sale, Needham bought her for a paltry $8,000.
Halecky bought in for half. The 8-year-old mare now has an Even the
Score colt and is pregnant to Tapit.
Betz watched from home in Lexington. "If I'd had it to do over again,
I would have gone to Louisville," he said.
Lamantia is leaning toward not attending the Preakness on May 16. He's
already invited the same group of friends over to his Toronto home for
another race-day party. This time, he won't talk anyone out of any
wagers, but otherwise, he says, "I really don't want to fool with the