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 commonplace.
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."
E. Degasero / AP
CORRECTS horse's name from Mind That Bird to Mine That Bird; graphic shows results of the Kentucky Derby
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.
Orb is the even-money favorite at Saturday's Preakness, and there's a growing feeling that this 3-year-old bay colt may be special enough to give thoroughbred racing its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
Mine That Bird wins Kentucky Derby
Overhead look at path Mine That Bird takes to go from last to first at the Derby.
Triple Crown winners
The horses that have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the same year.
Derby Day finery
Fashion statements fill Churchill Downs as race fans display their hats.