No-Name Gelding Wins Derby
by Ray Kerrison
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- I've seen a few shockers in my day around the racetrack, but I can't remember one quite the equal to the absolutely stunning, incomprehensible, unfathomable blowout of the 135th Kentucky Derby yesterday by a no-name gelding from the boonies of New Mexico named Mine That Bird.
As he flew under the sloshy wire, nearly seven lengths clear of the stragglers behind him, a universal cry bellowed out of the throats of the 153,000 at Churchill Downs, "Who the hell is that?"
Who, indeed? I spent a week around the backstretch prepping for this Derby, and I didn't write that horse's name once. One morning I ambled over to the barn and saw trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley, standing there alone on his crutches, not a soul in sight. I kept right on walking, too. Why waste time and space on a horse that has no chance?
It was bad enough that Mine That Bird went off at 50-1, to pay $103.20 for a $2 ticket, the second-biggest upset in the long history of America's greatest horserace. But he came from dead last, 20 lengths out of it, to zoom by 18 of the best surviving colts in the country and leave them so far behind in his wake, it just did not seem believable. Rub the eyes, pinch yourself. Is this true or is it a dream? Or a nightmare? Consider. Mine That Bird sold for $9,500. He came to Louisville in a long, 21-hour trailer drive from New Mexico with Woolley at the wheel. Basic Woolley lifestyle. He's an old cowhand who started out riding horses bareback on the southwest rodeo circuit, then graduated to the racetrack with quarter horses and then thoroughbreds.
Of his domicile, he says, "I live at the racetrack." Asked to describe himself, he said, "I'm just a country boy. I don't blow my own horn much."
The horse was sold at sale to partners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, a veterinarian.They started him out in maiden claimer races at Woodbine, the track just outside Toronto. He broke his maiden second out, then improved sharply to win four little stakes races at Woodbine.
They got so excited, they ran him in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, when he ran dead last in the name of trainer Richard Mandella.
In February, the owners took him to Sunland Park, the little track close to El Paso, Texas, and turned him over to Woolley. The horse was beaten by a neck in a $100,000 stake, but finished off the board in the Sunland Derby on March 29.
Imagine, li'l old Mine That Bird couldn't hit the board in an itty-bitty New Mexico Derby. Who, in their right minds, would think he could come to Churchill Downs for the ultimate American horse race and skittle everything in sight like 10 pins.
Blach said jokingly, "This was our plan from the start. We thought we had a good shot." Sure. And pigs fly.
Woolley, in black Stetson and dark shades, said, "I told everyone that all we need to do with this horse is to lay back and make one short run. That's how (jockey) Calvin Borel rode him. He did a superb job.
"When we came here, I did not have any real feeling we could win the Kentucky Derby. I just wanted us to be competitive."
Borel is almost as unlikely as the horse he rode. A tough, smiling, happy warrior of the racetrack, he set the nation alight two years ago when he made a fantastic move up the rail to win the Derby on Street Sense. He made such an impact he was invited to the White House and met the Queen of England.
Now, he made the same move, from the same playbook, again. He drove Mine That Bird up the rail, passing horse after horse, to snatch the lead, open daylight and sail home. Calvin, known as Calvin Bo-rail for his long history of winning races by stealing up the rail, threw his now customary wildly exuberant greetings to the big crowd, blowing kisses to everyone, hugging his horse.
I can't prove it, but I'd bet a million no one was more surprised than Calvin Borel to find himself in the winner's circle being draped in a blanket of beautiful red roses.
Horse racing is a hugely unpredictable sport, which makes it so enticing, but when horses like Mine That Bird get the cookies it almost reaches disbelief.
In his eight races, he had never run a bigger Beyer speed figure than 81, which in the speed world, means he has no chance against a herd of horses who have run figures in the high 90s and up to 113.
Woolley sheepishly admitted that when he came to the Derby he had won exactly one race for the year.
"Things were a bit slow," he said.
Imagine, he pulled into Churchill Downs after winning just one little maiden claimer for 2 year olds, now he was going to shoot for the $2 million Kentucky Derby.
Talk about optimism. Not only that but Woolley hardly could walk. He was on crutches because, "I hit the gravel a couple of months ago on my motor bike and busted my leg."
The horses behind Mine That Bird had no excuses, except perhaps Dunkirk who stumbled coming out of the gate. The only other setback was for the winner, who got squeezed a few yards out of the gate.
Pioneerof the Nile appeared the likely winner at the top of the lane, but was soon run down by Mine That Bird. He held for second, a nose ahead of Musket Man.
The towering flop of the Derby was the surprise 7-2 favorite Friesan Fire. He never raised a hoof and he beat only one horse home.
All I can say is: Barkeep, pour me a drink. And make it a double.
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