The Real Story Behind the '50-1' Shot

A couple of years ago, I wrote the back story of Mine That Bird’s amazing Triple Crown journey. Now, with the motion picture “50-1” having its premiere in Albuquerque, N.M. Wednesday, March 19, I have added to it (and it is quite lengthy) in an effort to tell the entire story as I witnessed it.

On April 17, 2009, I received a phone call from Darren Rogers, head of communications for Churchill Downs.

“We’ve got two new Derby horses,” Darren said. From past experience, the only kinds of horses entering the Derby picture at this late date were those whose only impact on the race would be to keep someone more worthy out.

“Oh, great,” I said. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

With the top Kentucky Derby contenders well established and the only question being who gets in and who gets left out, Darren’s call was not exactly received with unbridled enthusiasm. The last thing we needed at this time was to have unaccomplished 3-year-olds looking to sneak in the back door.

Darren then revealed the two newcomers: “Mine That Bird, trained by Bennie Woolley, and Summer Bird, trained by Tim Ice.”

“Who the heck are Bennie Woolley and Tim Ice?” I asked, not really wanting to know. They had to be greenhorns from the sticks looking to snatch a moment of glory.

Bennie Woolley, who was stabled at Sunland Park, had Mine That Bird, a gelding who actually was a champion in Canada the year before, but had run horribly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and done little in his two starts at Sunland in 2009, his best effort a second-place finish in the Borderland Derby.

Tim Ice, who was based at Louisiana Downs, had Summer Bird, who, like Mine That Bird, was a son of Belmont and Travers winner Birdstone, and actually had shown promise by finishing third in the Arkansas Derby. But it was only his third career start and he had only broken his maiden on March 1.

Let’s just say it was a stretch running either colt in the Kentucky Derby. After all, Derby horses do not come from Sunland Park or Louisiana Downs. In any event, I took down their phone numbers, called both trainers for quotes, and put a story online, titled “The Birds Are Coming to Kentucky.”

Said Woolley, better known as Chip, “We finally came to the decision (Thursday). We just weighed our options and felt this was our one shot at the Derby and decided to run. In the Sunland Derby, he made move too early and came up a little empty. He’s healthy and doing real good, so we’ll take a shot.”

Said Ice, a former assistant to Cole Norman, “After a few of those horses came out and we started moving up in earnings from 24th to 21st, we started talking about it. The way he came out of the Arkansas Derby, it gave us a little bit of hope. We definitely think we have a real nice horse, but the seasoning part he’ll have to make up for with his talent. I believe the colt has the ability to run with some of them, and hopefully, we can get lucky and hit the board.”

Mine That Bird had $138,705 in graded earnings and ranked No. 18 on the earnings list, while Summer Bird, with $100,000, was No. 21.

That was supposed to be the last time I would ever write about either horse.

Mine That Bird’s owners, Mark Allen, who owned Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, N.M., and Leonard Blach, a veterinarian from Roswell who owned Buena Suerte Equine, actually had decided not to run Mine That Bird in the Derby, feeling it was too ambitious a task. In addition, their horse was unlikely to even make it into the field, as there were several prospective starters ahead of him on the graded earnings list. They had been contacted by the Churchill Downs racing office about possibly running, but declined. They then received another call from Churchill, telling them that several horses had dropped out and there was a good chance Mine That Bird would make the starting field.

“Why not,” they said. This would be their only chance to live an owner’s greatest dream. That set in motion one of the great odysseys of the Turf.

A few days after the decision to go to the Derby, Woolley, who was born in Raton, N.M. and raised in Dalhart, Texas, and former rodeo bareback rider, and groom and exercise rider Charlie Figueroa set off on a 1,450-mile van ride that most believed to be a fool’s journey. Less than four weeks later, they would be given a police escort to Pimlico Race Course for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The fabric of Thoroughbred racing in 2009 had been woven into one of the oddest patterns anyone had ever seen. By the time Woolley hit the road for Baltimore, crutches were sexy, all cowboy hats were black, and post-race Derby interviews had reached a new low. And in New Mexico, for the first time ever, Quarter-Horses had to take a backseat to a Thoroughbred.

Before Woolley could embark on the journey to Kentucky, he needed a groom and exercise rider to accompany him and on whom he could rely. Mine That Bird’s regular groom had to return to Mexico to be with his mother, who had been involved in a bad auto accident.

Enter Figueroa, who was breaking the babies and doing a little bit of everything at co-owner Mark Allen’s ranch. Figueroa also was a top-rate exercise rider and excellent judge of horses, and Allen knew he would be able tell Woolley how the horse was doing on the track. It was decided that he would be the perfect replacement to take care of grooming and exercising Mine That Bird, whom Allen and Blach had purchased shortly before the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup for $400,000, a far cry from the $9,500 the horse sold for as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton October sale.

To complicate matters, Woolley had been on crutches since early March when he was thrown from his Big Dog chopper, suffering 12 fractures from his knee down to his ankle, including a broken tibia and fibula, the latter requiring a dozen screws to be inserted. This wasn’t exactly the ideal scenario to have to drive over a thousand miles, especially with Woolley not being able to use his right foot, but he still was determined to do all the driving.

This wasn’t surprising for Woolley, who likes to be hands on in whatever he does. He normally galloped his own horses, and it was very difficult for him not to be on the horse and feel him every day. When it came to Mine That Bird, he didn’t trust anyone, and according to his girlfriend at the time, Kim Carr, had to observe every oat the horse ate.

So began the 40-hour journey to Kentucky, as Woolley and Figueroa followed the scent of roses. This was the first time Figueroa had even laid eyes on Mine That Bird. They converted the four stalls in Woolley’s Turnbow trailer into two in order to make Mine That Bird more comfortable, then set the GPS system in Woolley’s pickup truck for Louisville, Ky.

They left Sunland Park on Monday, Apr. 20 at 6:30 a.m., arriving at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas at about 10 o’clock that night. The following morning, Mine That Bird was checked out by a veterinarian, after which Figueroa took the horse out for a jog. They then loaded him back on the trailer and continued on their journey, pulling into the Churchill Downs stable gate at 10:30 Tuesday night following 21 hours of driving, plus the overnight stay at Lone Star.

During the trip, Figueroa was briefed by Woolley on the horse’s habits and how he wanted things done. The two got along great and formed a strong bond along the way.

Shortly after the trio arrived at Churchill Downs, former trainer Murray Johnson showed up at the barn looking to sell Woolley one of his Niagara Equissage machines. Woolley was willing to accept any help and advantage he could get. He told Johnson he was just looking for Mine That Bird to run well enough to go on to the Belmont Stakes, and had him use his machine on the horse every day.

“He thrived, and his muscles were in excellent shape,” said Johnson, an Australian native who trained five-time Breeders’ Cup Classic starter Perfect Drift, who had finished third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby.

Each morning, Figueroa watched the Derby horses gallop a mile and three-eighths or a mile and a half and they were coming back blowing. He and Mine That Bird were going two miles every day at a pretty good lick on every kind of surface and not once did the horse come back blowing.

They decided to have Calvin Borel, who had won the Derby two years earlier on Street Sense, work Mine That Bird on April 27. The gelding went five furlongs in 1:02, closing his final eighth in :12 1/5 and galloping out six furlongs in a strong 1:15 1/5.

“Things went super,” Woolley said afterward. “I’m really happy with my horse. It’s pretty much exactly what I wanted – he started slower and finished up super-strong. He came back to the barn really playing. That’s as good as you are ever going to see him feeling. He’s not an animated horse.”

When Figueroa saw him come back to the barn after the work and nearly unseat Borel in the shedrow, he knew he was ready. The question was, ready for what?

I had started coming to the Derby about seven or eight days out from the race and not only did not see Mine That Bird’s work, I honestly didn’t give the horse much thought. I remember walking past Barn 42, where the horse was stabled, and seeing this tall guy with a fu manchu mustache, dressed in black and wearing a cowboy hat, standing outside the barn on crutches. I eventually found out he was the trainer of Mine That Bird, but I would keep walking, figuring I would talk to him “tomorrow.” Well, I’m ashamed to say tomorrow never came. There were too many trainers with legitimate shots to talk to, and I have to admit I just didn’t pay much attention to this horse.

Woolley would stand in that same spot, as if waiting for any member of the media to come by and ask about his horse.

On April 30, however, while watching the horses train from the grandstand, I got my first glimpse of Mine That Bird galloping. Not a single person had even mentioned the horse, and although I felt he had little or no shot, I did end my column that day with this graph:

“Although no one was paying attention, Mine That Bird, who likely will be either the longest or second-longest priced horse in the field, actually turned in a smooth, strong gallop this morning, which caught the eye. There is nothing striking about him physically; he’s just a smallish colt in a plain brown wrapper, but he really moves well over this track.”

One morning, Jean Amick and Juliet Hogue from Second Stride (which re-trains retired horses and find them homes) showed up at Barn 42 looking for Derby horses. As they peered down the shedrow, Woolley, standing off by himself, said to them, “If you’re looking for a Derby horse, here’s one.” He then proudly showed off Mine That Bird to them and the two women had found their Derby rooting interest.

Woolley’s misadventures were far from over. At the media/VIP party two days before the Derby, he tripped and fell, and X-rays taken by the vet the following morning revealed he had re-fractured one of his bones.

Even Mark Allen was having his mishaps. He was delayed getting to Louisville when his pickup truck broke down in Sweetwater, Texas.

Derby Day brought morning rains, which ended by about 9 o’clock. Woolley was unable to make the entire walk from the barn area to the paddock, but he wasn’t about to miss the experience of a lifetime. He went to the track through the paddock and walked some 200 yards toward the clubhouse turn, where he waited for his horse. He then walked the rest of the way with the horse, soaking up all the electricity.

“I was pretty worn out and shaky-legged, but I wanted to be part of the Derby walk,” he said later. “That’s one of the biggest things about coming to the Derby. When you look up and see all those people, that really meant something to me and I wasn’t going to miss all of it.”

Figueroa couldn’t believe it when he heard people shouting Mine That Bird’s name. “Maybe it was because of Calvin or maybe it was just for the horse, but they were going crazy,” he said.

Well, as history will recount, although Mine That Bird’s travels weren’t exactly Darwin’s Journey of Discovery, it proved to be one of the great odysseys in the annals of the Triple Crown, as the plain-looking little gelding shocked the world by coming from last in the 19-horse field, more than 20 lengths off the pace, to win by an amazing 6 3/4 lengths, paying $103.20, the second-highest payoff in Derby history. His breathtaking acceleration on the far turn, as if someone had given him a hotfoot, was one of the most stunning moments in Derby history. He passed horses as if moving in a different time frame.

Just like that he was five in front, then six, then nearly seven at the wire, coming home his final half in an astounding :47 1/5 and final quarter in a Secretariat-like :23 1/5 to complete the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02 3/5. I watched the race on the big screen in the paddock, along with Jerry Hollendorfer and Nick Zito. It was a dark, gloomy day and difficult to make out the images on the screen. Just as I thought Pioneerof the Nile was going to hold off everyone, here came this unfamiliar figure dashing up the rail like a frightened rabbit. Before I had a chance to absorb what I was seeing, the figure was five lengths in front and continuing to draw away. I could hear the faded voice of track announcer Mark Johnson just enough to make out the name Mine That Bird. Nothing registered. I had forgotten who he was, only that he had Calvin Borel on his back and was so close to the rail as usual, the jockey would return with white paint on his left boot.

As I made my way across the track toward the winner’s circle, feeling as if my week in Louisville had been a waste of time, I ran into Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden, who also makes it a practice to talk to all the Derby trainers at least once and get some background material. We both looked at each other with the same quizzical look. “I got nuthin,” I said. “Neither do I,” he replied. We pretty much had to start from scratch. Even after covering the Derby for so many years, it was a lesson well learned. The few reporters hanging around the winner's circle had no clue who to interview, and some began interviewing anyone wearing a cowboy hat. One reporter conducted an extensive interview, thinking it was with one of the owners, only to find out afterward he was talking to the farm manager.

It was inexcusable to have totally ignored the horse. Despite his feeble price tag as a yearling, he was the Sovereign Award winner as champion 2-year-old in Canada, winning the Grey Stakes, Swynford Stakes, and Silver Deputy Stakes after breaking his maiden in a $62,500 claiming race in his second career start for Dominion Bloodstock, Derek Ball, and HGHR, Inc.

After the race, Figueroa could sense the shock in the crowd while he was waiting for the horse to return. “I went on the track and looked back at the crowd and they were stunned,” he said. “It was like, ‘What just happened?’”

Meanwhile, up in Canada, Mine That Bird’s former trainer and majority owner Dave Cotey watched the race in the Finish Line bar at Woodbine with his two partners in the horse, Hugh Galbraith and Derek Ball, each of whom had owned 25% of the horse.

“We’re just so ecstatic,” Cotey said. “I can hardly talk I was screaming so hard for him. Everybody in the bar was screaming their heads off. I’m so proud of the horse and so happy for Chip and the owners. I loved this horse when I bought him. He just glided over the ground and he was so smart. He just did everything right. The deal went down as smooth as can be and everyone was happy. We made $324,000 with him, and with the sale, that’s close to $800,000. I hope they make another three or four million with him. We did great and they did great. I can’t wait until he runs again.”

Also watching in Canada, from the jock’s room, was Chantal Sutherland, who had ridden Mine That Bird four times as a 2-year-old, winning three stakes on the horse. “That’s my horse!” she bellowed, at first stunned, and then realizing the missed opportunity of a lifetime.

Following the race, Woolley provided perhaps the most uncomfortable post-race interview ever on a Derby telecast when he abruptly ended the interview by NBC’s Kenny Rice. Too many worlds were converging on Woolley all at once and he didn’t know how to handle it. He eventually would embrace the spotlight and the media and would offer intelligent and profound responses in all future interviews.

He would later explain at Belmont, ““It’s been a lot of fun. Of course, the media attention is something we’re not quite used to, but we’re getting more used to it by the day. I guess the one thing it’s done is probably validate a career. I spent 25 years to get to this point, and it’s been a lot of hard work. I went broke a couple of times, so it’s probably more of a validation stamp more than anything. At first it was hard to enjoy, but now it’s kind of loosened up. We’re enjoying it and just living for the moment and taking it all in, and we’ll ride this out through the Belmont. I haven’t had lot of time to reflect on everything. It probably will hit me when I get back home.”

Since arriving in Louisville, Woolley had been hoping to meet Carl Nafzger, who was a legend on the rodeo circuit and for whom he had great admiration. He never did get to meet him before the race, but ran into him in the Kentucky Derby museum after the race.

“Congratulations,” Nafzger said. “Both bull riders."

“I’m just a bareback rider, not a bull rider,” Woolley replied.

“Well, congratulations again, it’s great to meet you, said Nafzger, who showed Woolley his Kentucky Derby ring that is given to the winning connections. “There, that’s yours now.”

“From what I hear I get one of them,” Woolley said. “I’ll be proud to wear it.”

Later that night, Mine That Bird was getting antsy for his dinner. He was showing no signs that the race took anything out of him, as he ripped into his hay rack and attempted to nail anyone who came close to his stall without a feed tub. Woolley and Figueroa finally returned from the Derby museum party at around 10:15. Figueroa brought the feed tub over and Mine That Bird promptly buried his head in it.

So ended one of the wildest Kentucky Derbys in memory, and a result that made Giacomo’s victory in 2005 seem predictable, despite both going off at almost the same odds.

With a Kentucky Derby victory comes extreme scrutiny, and several controversies surfaced prior to the Preakness, including a report in the Anchorage Daily News that Mark Allen had been involved in a political bribery scandal that involved his father.

On the racing side, Woolley was told by Calvin Borel that he had decided to ride the runaway Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness instead of Mine That Bird. Woolley had the unusual task of having to find a replacement jockey to ride his Kentucky Derby winner. He chose Mike Smith, who had won the Derby aboard Giacomo in 2005.

Then soon after, according to Ahmed Zayat, owner of Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, he had been contacted by Mark Allen informing him he would be entering another horse in the Preakness in order to keep Rachel Alexandra (who did not have sufficient graded earnings) out of the race, and asked Zayat to join him, which he initially agreed to do.

But Zayat had a change of heart and announced on TVG that he had decided to reconsider and would not enter any other horses.

“I have decided I don’t want to be viewed as not being a sportsman, so I am happy not to block her for the good of the game,” he said.

But most important was the continuing journey of Mine That Bird, who vanned from Louisville to Baltimore for the Preakness, with Woolley and Figueroa stopping only for gas and to grab a bite to eat at Arby’s.

Figueroa couldn’t believe it when he saw the heavy traffic on Interstates 70 and 695 clearing out of their lane to the sound of blaring police sirens and whirring helicopters. People were taking pictures from the overpass. Others stood in their front yards near Pimlico shouting words of encouragement. Figueroa, who had never been east of Oklahoma, turned to Woolley, who had driven close to 2,000 miles with a broken right leg, and said, “It’s amazing what two minutes (the approximate time of the Derby) can do.”

“Every day, we say to each other, ‘Is this really happening?’ Figueroa said. “I tell the horse, ‘You started all this; it’s all your fault.’”

When they arrived in Baltimore, Woolley said to Figueroa, “Well, we can’t go any farther, we’re at the Ocean.”

But, despite all the hoopla, Woolley has been on a simple mission. “This has been a dream year,” he said. “But I didn’t come here to be a celebrity. I just came here to run a horse.”

When Mine That Arrived at Pimlico, he was allowed to stand outside the barn surrounded by a throng of photographers and cameramen. The horse barely moved, unfazed by the crowd, and posed for pictures for at least 20 minutes. No one had ever seen anything like it.

Despite losing Borel, Woolley had him work Mine That Bird at Churchill Downs before departing for Maryland, and it turned into an emotional experience.

“When he got off the horse and gave me a hug I could tell something was up,” Figueroa said. “Then when he hugged Chip he just lowered his head and broke down crying. It was pretty hard on him. I knew it would be hard for him to take off a horse that had just won the Kentucky Derby. He kept telling us, ‘Thank you,’ but I said, ‘Geez, dude, we should be thanking you.’ Then he headed to the airport to go to California to be on Jay Leno.”

When the word got around that Rachel Alexandra was running in the Preakness, it wasn’t well received by rival trainers, including Woolley.

“Any man would be a fool to welcome that filly,” he said.

Of course, Rachel went on to win the Preakness, beating a fast-closing Mine That Bird, who did not have the smoothest of trips, by a length, and eventually was named Horse of the Year.

For the Belmont Stakes, Borel returned aboard Mine That Bird, but spent all of Belmont week in Manhattan and didn’t get a chance to get used to the sweeping mile and a half oval. In addition to being on Jay Leno, he also appeared on the David Letterman Show, the Today Show, and Good Morning America.

Woolley woke up the morning of June 2 to find out his truck had been burglarized and Mine That Bird’s registration papers missing. Woolley’s truck had been broken into at the Louisville hotel where he was staying and his GPS also was stolen. He contacted Churchill Downs and The Jockey Club and got the papers replaced. Later that day he arrived in New York.

The theme of the Belmont could have been, “The Ponderosa Comes to New York.” There were so many cowboy hats (mostly black) at Belmont Park all that was missing was a herd of cattle. After all, when was the last time a Belmont favorite’s trainer and owner (Allen) met in a bar fight? By the time Chip Woolley arrived in New York his crutches had become as familiar an inanimate object as Archie Bunker’s chair and Columbo’s raincoat.

The story had read like a novel, becoming the most compelling human/animal travelogue since John Steinbeck’s cross-country journey with his French poodle in “Travels With Charley.” Like Charley and Steinbeck, Mine That Bird and Woolley’s relationship became, as the author wrote, “A bond between strangers.”

On the morning of the Belmont, Figueroa, said he was sorry to see the magical journey nearing an end. People would ask him ‘I bet you’re ready to go home,’ and he would reply, “I’ve read about these races and these places all my life. Why would I want to wake up from my dream?”

Later that morning, Woolley stood next to Mine That Bird’s stall holding out his hand for several minutes while the gelding continuously licked his palm.

Mine That Bird ran another strong race in the Belmont, but lost way too much ground around the turn and could only finish third behind, guess who? Summer Bird. The two late-flying birds from back in April had captured two legs of the Triple Crown.

Summer Bird’s story and his adventures are for another time, as is the remainder of Mine That Bird’s career, which saw him taken away from Woolley and turned over to Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas. He never won another race, failing to even hit the board in his last six starts. Almost every year since, Woolley would gravitate to Churchill Downs on Derby week to relive his glory, soak in the atmosphere, and stroll through the backstretch, seeing familiar faces and remembering that surreal time in 2009.

Mine That Bird’s journey was one that is not likely to be forgotten, and as you can see, the producers of “50-1” had a lot to work with. In the case of Mine That Bird, life indeed imitated art, and now with “50-1,” art needs only to imitate life. The story already is written as if conceived by a Hollywood script writer. Let it be passed down just the way it happened. After all, no one is going to believe it anyway.

Mine That Bird steals a carrot out of his groom's back pocket at Saratoga

Mine That Bird meets fellow Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide at the Kentucky Derby Museum

Mine That Bird still as alert as ever

Chip Woolley leads Mine That Bird around the Churchill Downs paddock again, with Funny Cide followiing.

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