Mine That Bird had chance, or did he?
Derby winner stunk in New Mexico preps, but there were signs of potential
By Mike Brunker - Horse racing editor - NBCSports.com
May 5, 2009 - LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There are long shots in horse racing, and then there
are l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng shots.
Mine That Bird’s shocker in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday definitely
falls into the latter category, as improbable a tale as anything
you’ll find in the fantasy section of your local book seller:
A small and unheralded gelding who couldn’t win in two starts this
year at New Mexico’s Sunland Park — hardly one of the marquee stops on
the racing circuit — Mine That Bird arrived in Louisville to polite
titters from most observers. But instead of bringing up the rear of
the 19-horse field, he mounted a furious last-to-first charge along
the rail under jockey Calvin Borel and took down America’s most famous
and storied race. And he didn’t just eke out a victory, he splashed
past the rest of the field like they were pulling plows, besting
runner-up Pioneerof the Nile by 6¾ lengths.
His trainer, Bennie “Chip” Woolley, is a former quarter horse trainer
who had one victory from 32 starters this year before Saturday. He
drove the horse to Churchill Downs himself, a trip lasting 21 hours
even though he still has to get around on crutches as the result of a
motorcycle accident two months ago.
The owners, Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, are longtime buddies who
decided to go in together on a few horses, including Mine That Bird.
It may be no coincidence that both men live in Roswell, N.M., a place
where UFOs are said to prowl and the supernatural is considered
Allen undoubtedly spoke for many when asked by NBC Sports’ commentator
Mike Battaglia for his reaction after watching his horse spring the
second longest upset in the Derby’s 134-year history at odds of better
than 50-to-1: "I ain’t got no feelings in me now."
Certainly “numb and number” would describe the vast majority of the
153,563 fans assembled at Churchill Downs to watch the annual renewal
of the Run for the Roses. Though most had no idea of the long and
winding road that led to this improbable triumph, they couldn’t
comprehend how a pipsqueak that had garnered so little respect could
crush a field of America’s best 3-year-olds.
Borel, who piloted Mine That Bird to victory with a brilliant
rail-skimming ride that practically mirrored the one he put down in
winning the 2007 Derby aboard Street Sense, said that fans who
dismissed the gelded son of Birdstone hadn’t looked far enough back
into his history.
Despite his recent exercises in futility in New Mexico, Mine That Bird
was the 2-year-old champion last year in Canada. He said he took the
mount because he figured the horse would merely need to “show up” on
Derby day to have a chance, Borel said.
Show up, he did, and the stars aligned to guide him to a victory only
eclipsed on the Derby improbability index by Donerail, who won the
1913 Derby at odds of 91-to-1.
Mine That Bird’s story began in Kentucky, where he was bred by a
partnership who had big dreams when they consummated a match between
Birdstone, himself an upset winner of the 2004 Belmont Stakes, and
Mining My Own, a daughter of Smart Strike.
But despite his fashionable parents, Mine That Bird sold at auction as
a yearling for just $9,500 to Dominion Bloodstock, the racing
operation of Canadian trainer David Cotey. The purchase price was a
pittance when it comes to thoroughbred racehorses, presumably because
Mine That Bird wasn’t as big as his playmates and his legs weren’t the
straightest pins around.
But it turned out the little guy could run. He won at Woodbine outside
Toronto in his second start, then reeled off three straight victories
in stakes races.
It just so happened that Allen and Blach were looking for a racehorse
at the time, and they got wind of Mine That Bird’s exploits north of
the border. They dispatched their new trainer, Leonard “Chip” Woolley,
to go and take a look at the gelding and he liked what he saw.
No sooner did the partners acquire the horse for $400,000 than things
began to go wrong.