Mine That Bird sprang out of the starting gate into the mud at the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Before the first turn, the gelding fell nine lengths behind the next-to-last horse. The lead horse set a strong pace, and The Bird loped along behind like a dude horse trailing its herd out to pasture. The announcer ran through the placement of every horse in the field: “…and the last is Mr. Hot Stuff.” He hadn’t seen Mine That Bird, who had fallen so far back that he had disappeared from the television screen. Ridden by top jockey Calvin Borel, The Bird had been off screen for almost fifty seconds when the surprised announcer corrected himself: “…and well behind the rest of them is Mine That Bird.”
Down the backstretch, The Bird caught up with the next-to-last horse but still was running dead last, living up to what every breeder, trainer, and owner had claimed: He did not belong. Persons betting on him were drunk, crazy, or so down on their luck that only a payoff of historic proportions could jerk them out of their straits. At least The Bird’s owners, Mark Allen and Leonard “Doc” Blach, and trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley—nobodies from New Mexico—were running a horse in the Kentucky Derby. How many persons can say that?
As the racers rounded the third turn, the 153,563 attendees and 6,300,000 television viewers were all watching the leaders. Then something remarkable happened. The Bird began to pick up speed.
Mine That Bird was an improbable Kentucky Derby competitor, not that he didn’t have the genes. His sire, Birdstone, a relative of Northern Dancer, had won the 2004 Belmont Stakes, and his dam, Mining My Own, was related to Northern Dancer and Native Dancer. Still, the colt had sold for only $9,500 to a trainer in Canada where the horse began strong by winning four of six starts. He was named the 2008 Canadian champion two-year-old male and was nominated for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Then he won the Silver Deputy Stakes, Swynford Stakes, and Grey Stakes after which owners Allen and Blach purchased him for $400,000 and hired U.S. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella to fulfill the horse’s potential. But in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, The Bird finished last.
Allen ended up pairing Mine That Bird with former bareback rider and New Mexico trainer Chip Woolley, who had been training second-rate horses in the desert of thoroughbred racing, Sunland Park. The two men hadn’t liked each other. Then one night in a bar they had gotten acquainted when Woolley had jumped in to help Allen in a fight. Woolley trained The Bird to a second-place finish in the Borderland Derby and a fourth place finish in the Sunland Derby. His combined Canadian and U.S. graded stakes earned The Bird just enough winnings, $138,705, to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
At first Allen and Blach declined the invitation, believing Mine That Bird had no chance. There were several horses ahead for the twenty available slots. But after several horses dropped out, The Bird’s owners accepted. The Derby might be their only chance to run a horse in the world’s most revered race.
Woolley loaded The Bird into a nondescript horse trailer and drove east from Roswell, New Mexico. Pain and limited movement resulting from a leg injury troubled him. In a motorcycle accident, he had broken the tibia and fibula and had fractured the leg bones in twelve places. Seven screws held the fibular together, and he had been hobbling around on crutches. But the Kentucky Derby was his chance at the big time. He drove for twenty-one hours, stopping only once overnight, and arrived at the cathedral of horse racing, Churchill Downs in Kentucky. No one was waiting for him.
Allen’s pickup truck broke down in Texas. Days before the race, Woolley fell and re-fractured a bone at a media event. The morning of the Derby, rains poured and turned the track to mud. Allen, Blach, and Woolley didn’t have a chance, but they were there. Their gelding would run in the Mother of All Horse Races.
The field headed for the final turn and home stretch, and The Bird moved from last place to mid-pack. At least he might not finish last. Few spectators noticed; all eyes were on the leaders. “As the field turns for home…top of the stretch….” Past the quarter pole they thundered. Jockey Borel felt his horse catch fire. But he had no place to go. Suddenly a sliver of a hole opened up on the rail, and Borel let The Bird run. Using the same technique that had won him the 2007 Derby, he nudged his horse toward the gap, and Mine That Bird rocketed through like a hare surprised by hounds. Before the second-place jockey saw him, he had shot three lengths into the lead. The jockey did a double take as if The Bird had appeared from thin air.
Still naming the wrong leaders, the announcer caught sight of The Bird in the lead. “Down through the inside…coming on through…that is…uh…” He stammered. “Mine That Bird.” He seemed confused. “Mine That Bird has come through to take the lead as they come down to the finish.” By then The Bird was six lengths ahead, pouring on the speed and pulling away. Grasping the moment’s historic nature, the announcer said, “A spectacular, SPECTACULAR upset! Mine That Bird has won the Kentucky Der—an impossible result here!”
During the race, the announcer had mentioned Mine That Bird only twice, when he was in last place and when he crossed the wire. The Bird had come from twenty lengths off the pace to win by 6 3/4 lengths, finishing the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02 3/5. He had run the final half in :47 1/5 and the final quarter in an astonishing :23 1/5.
A subdued applause came from the stands. Attendees thumbed through programs, trying to find mention of Mine That Bird. Writers and commentators scrambled for info on the horse, some shred of backstory. And the drunks, crazies, and downcasts who had bet on The Bird yelled, hopped, and hugged strangers. The horse had earned $103.20, the second-highest payoff in Derby history.
Borel warmed the gelding down and rode into the winner’s circle. White paint marked the outside of his left boot.
When Mine That Bird arrived in a transport at Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, a herd of photographers and videographers surrounded him. He finished second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont. Allen and Blach then dropped Woolley in favor of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas, and The Bird lost his last nine races.
Now eight years old, Mine That Bird is retired on Allen’s New Mexico ranch where two small spires replicate Churchill Downs. He has his own paddock and a pit of sand. Recently he has been making appearances around the country to support
50 to 1, the film about his Derby win. When at home, he often rolls in the sand and eats his favorite treat, peppermint candies, from the palms of his fans.
Allen and Blach have not qualified another horse for the Kentucky Derby, but they bask in attention from the movie and the public’s enduring interest in The Bird. Chip Woolley thought his success with Mine That Bird might land him more premiere horses to train, but it did not. He is said to sometimes visit Churchill Downs during Derby week and to lean on the rail, peer down homestretch, and remember.
A few weeks after this article ran, one of Mine That Bird's owners sent me a photo of him riding The Bird in a western tack. I couldn't help but chuckle. There was this large cowboy clad in a black hat and spurs, riding a Kentucky Derby winner on a trail high in the mountains of Colorado. I wondered if The Bird wanted to return to his paddock and life of leisure in New Mexico or if he was thrilled to be exploring the high country doing what no other famous racehorse would be permitted.