This column is dedicated to producer/director Jim Wilson and his wonderful film "50-1," one of the best racing movies I've ever seen and one which still brings a tear to my eye at the end. Watching it for the umpteenth time last night was what inspired me to tell the Mine That Bird story from a personal perspective.
It was time to start counting the days before I would leave for my 11-hour drive to Louisville, Ky. to cover the Kentucky Derby (G1). I had my manila folders filled with past performances, quotes, statistics, anecdotes, and other tidbits of information on all the Derby horses that I had been compiling for months. Somewhere in this morass of paper was the angle and storyline I would be using for my 3,500-word recap that was due the afternoon following the race.
Would I have enough material for a good story? Would I have a good opening or would I be wasting a lot of precious time trying to come up with one? The opening often is the hardest part to write, because that is where you have to immediately capture the reader. Bad opening, bad story. And most of all would I be able to start writing the night of the race after getting back to my hotel or at a 3 a.m. brainstorm or would I have to wait until the following morning and then have the pressure of writing fast enough to meet the afternoon deadline. But this was the most exciting, stimulating time of the year.
So, here I was on April 17, 2009. All the preps had been run and the Derby field was pretty much set. I was pretty certain I had all my bases covered. Then the phone in my home office rang.
“Hey Steve, it’s Darren Rogers (head of communications for Churchill Downs).”
“Hi Darren, what’s up?”
“We got two new horses for the Derby.”
“Oh, geez, who?” I replied, not wanting to know the answer.
“Mine That Bird, trained by Bennie Woolley, and Summer Bird, trained by Tim Ice.”
“Who the heck are Bennie Woolley and Tim Ice?” There is always some greenhorn from the sticks looking to sneak in the back door at the last minute and snatch a moment of glory, knowing they have absolutely no shot. Oh, well, that’s part of the Derby.
“Well, I can give you their phone number,” Darren said.
I quickly looked up both horses and saw that Mine That Bird had been a top 2-year-old in Canada, but after being sold, had run horribly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and lost both his starts at Sunland Park in 2009, including a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby. “Ugh.”
I called both of them so I could at least put a story on Bloodhorse.com.
“Hi, Bennie (not knowing everyone called him Chip), this is Steve Haskin of the BloodHorse. I hear you’re running in the Derby.”
“We finally came to our decision yesterday,” Woolley said. “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 his move too early and came up a little empty. He’s healthy and doing real good, so we’ll take a shot.”
Tim Ice was based at Louisiana Downs, and at least Summer Bird had finished third in the Arkansas Derby, but that was only the third start of his career and he did not look ready for the Kentucky Derby. So, here we were with two new shooters, one from Sunland Park and the other from Louisiana Downs.
So, I wrote my story and borrowed my head from Alfred Hitchcock: “The Birds Are Coming to Kentucky.”
Of course, I didn't know at the time that one would win the Kentucky Derby and the other would win the Belmont Stakes.
Mine That Bird’s owners were Mark Allen, who owned Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, N.M., and Leonard Blach, a veterinarian from Roswell who owned Buena Suerte Equine. Out of the blue, they had been contacted by the Churchill Downs racing office about the possibility of running, but declined, feeling they had no shot to get in and virtually no shot to win. Heck, their horse couldn’t even finish in the money at Sunland Park and they were still reeling over that defeat. A few days later, they received another call from Churchill, telling them that several horses had dropped out and at this time 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. They would partake in what everyone felt was a fool’s journey. That set in motion one of the great odysseys of the Turf and one of the most improbable stories in the history of the sport.
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 Allen’s groom and exercise rider Charlie Figueroa set off on a 1,450-mile van ride that to most seemed nothing more than folly.
Little did anyone know that the fabric of Thoroughbred racing in 2009 was about to be woven into one of the oddest patterns anyone had ever seen.
So, I headed to Kentucky knowing nothing about Woolley’s and Mine That Bird’s journey, and not really caring to. To me, he was just a last-minute throw-in who had absolutely no shot to win. But I figured I would get at least a few snippets of information from Woolley after I arrived, just to make sure I had something on every horse.
My focus was on the Derby favorite I Want Revenge, and then Pioneerof the Nile, General Quarters and several others of seemingly equal talent. For the most part, it was a pretty wide-open race.
Each day I would walk by Barn 42, which housed Mine That Bird and would see a tall guy on crutches, with a Fu Manchu mustache and wearing a black cowboy hat standing outside the barn. I could only assume it was Bennie Woolley but had no idea. “Eh, I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” I said to myself. But tomorrow never came. I kept putting it off until I forgot all about Woolley and his horse. I couldn’t even remember what the horse had done. I had others to see and other quotes to get. I never even thought to ask him why he was on crutches. It was not one of my shining moments as a journalist. But unbeknownst to me, Tim Layden from Sports Illustrated was doing the same thing I was -- walking by the barn and putting off an interview with the cowboy on crutches.
Then one day, while I was in the grandstand watching the horses train, I noticed a horse galloping who impressed me, the way he was skipping over the ground and striding out with great extension for a small horse. Yes, it was Mine That Bird and I actually liked what I was seeing.
In that day’s Derby Doings column, I wrote, “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.”
Derby Day brought the shocking announcement that the Derby favorite I Want Revenge had been scratched due to a minor injury.
Finally, it was time for the Derby. I did the walkover and headed to the paddock. As the jockeys mounted their horses I happened to be standing in front of Mine That Bird. When I saw Calvin Borel being given a leg up on his horse, I remember thinking, “Man, this guy wins the (previous day’s) Kentucky Oaks by 20 lengths aboard a budding superstar in Rachel Alexandra and now here he is getting up on some 50-1 shot in the Derby who has no chance.”
I watched the race on the large screen in the paddock along with several other trainers. What I saw I couldn’t believe. I had no idea who that horse was that was flying along the rail and opening up on the field. Four lengths, five, six. Then I faintly heard track announcer Mark Johnson call the name Mine That Bird.
It couldn’t be. I didn’t have a single bit of information on the horse, knew nothing about him or his trainer. Two weeks in Louisville, being at the backstretch at 5:15 every morning, and I might as well have arrived at Churchill Downs 10 minutes before the race. I was stunned, ticked off, and totally perplexed how I was going to write 3,500 words on this race by the next day.
I ran out across the track toward the winner’s circle hoping to find someone to talk to. The first person I saw was Tim Layden. Both of us shook our head and echoed each other’s words: “I got nuthin,’”
All we saw were a bunch of black cowboy hats, not knowing whose head was under them. Tim raced to the first cowboy he saw and started talking to him, thinking it had to be the owner or trainer. But before I followed, someone pointed out it was the farm manager, Big deal. I needed more than that.
I saw Chip Woolley being interviewed by Kenny Rice from NBC and he seemed very stoic and aloof, bordering on arrogant, and basically blew off the interview. Oh, brother, is this we have to look forward to? I most certainly was going to have to B.S. my way through this story.
And then, at Derby Museum following all the interviews and learning nothing, I met an angel. Her name was Kim Carr and she just happened to be Chip Woolley’s girlfriend. She proceeded to tell me the entire story, even all the stops Chip made on his journey, the departure and arrival times, and the full extent of Chip’s injury. By the time we finished, I had the whole story.
Figueroa was breaking the babies and doing a little bit of everything at Mark Allen’s ranch. He also was a top-rate exercise rider and an excellent judge of horses, and Allen knew he would be able to 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.
Kim added that 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 Kim he 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, and 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. Another stroke of luck was that I was pretty good friends with Murray from his days as the trainer of Perfect Drift.
“He’s thriving here,” Johnson said. “And his muscles are in excellent shape.”
I also learned that at the media/VIP party two days before the Derby, Woolley 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.
When I spoke to Figueroa he said he 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?’”
For Woolley, too many worlds were converging on him all at once and he didn’t know how to handle it.
As I followed Woolley to the Derby Museum I learned he had been hoping to meet Carl Nafzger, who was a legend on the rodeo circuit and for whom he had great admiration. And sure enough there he was.
“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, I returned to the barn to wait for Woolley and talk to Johnson. 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. When Woolley returned, he promptly and politely asked me to leave the barn. Oh, brother, this is going to be brutal to write, I thought. Between this, the Kenny Rice interview, and his overall attitude toward the media, how am I going to put any feeling into a story when I don’t like the trainer?
Perhaps the wildest statistic in this dizzy Derby was that Woolley had only two victories all year -- a two-furlong maiden win at Sunland Park and the Kentucky Derby.
So ended the wildest Derby I ever saw. Thanks to Kim Carr and others, and just getting lucky, I amazingly had my story, which my editors unbeknownst to me sent in to the American Horse Publications for their annual awards. I later was shocked to learn it had won first-place in the “Event Coverage” category. Go figure. The race in which I had no story had won an award.
As it turned out, Chip mellowed quite a bit through the Triple Crown and we actually became friends. I really got to like him and we had some excellent talks, even when he visited Churchill over the next few years just to return to the scene of his amazing triumph.
Needless to say I will never forget the 2009 Derby, which spawned one of the greatest racing movies ever. And for me it all started with nuthin.