"Mine That Bird is last; no surprise there," I said to my colleague Esther Marr as we watched the horses pass us for the first time while standing trackside for Derby 135. Why do they even let half of these horses in the field, I said to myself for a split second before continuing to watch the field round the turn.
Less than two minutes later I stood in the same spot as they came roaring down the stretch. "Who's that flying on the rail?" I belted out. "It's Mine That @*&%$# Bird!!!" we screamed simultaneously as the 50-1 longshot came whizzing past us.
Just as he did the day before when guiding Rachel Alexandra to a record-setting victory in the Kentucky Oaks, Calvin Borel shook his stick at the crowd well before the wire. On Friday, Borel's stick wave was as if to say, "This is the best 3-year-old in the country and she's a filly." This time, aboard Mine That Bird, I could almost hear Borel saying, "This one's for all you so-called experts who didn't give us a chance. Take that!" It was a stange feeling of deja vu.
All that was left after witnessing one of the most shocking Derby upsets of all-time was to stand there in stunned disbelief. Mine That Bird? Are you kidding me? The first thing I did was reach for my program to look over the gelding's PPs. What did I miss?
Yes, he was Canadian 2-year-old champion. Sure, he's a pretty well bred horse by Birdstone, out of a Smart Strike mare. Yeah, he won four consecutive races as a juvenile. But they were all on the Polytrack at Woodbine. And he was winless in two starts this year with a high Beyer number of 81. And he finished last in the BC Juvenile. And he is supposed to be a speed horse, not a closer. I still don't get it.
And then it hit me.
On Friday, I watched Borel make his patented rail-skimming move three different times, twice on winners, once to get up for second and nose me out of a potentially nice exacta. On the drive from Lexington to Louisville on Saturday morning, colleague Tom LaMarra and I talked about Borel for 10 minutes. Tom commented on how he bet Miss Isella to upset One Caroline in the Louisville Distaff and was laughing all the way to window when the 8-1 filly pulled the upset with Borel aboard. We talked about how he makes that rail move like nobody else in the game. He's a master at it.
Borel did the same aboard maiden Raposa in the opener at Churchill on Saturday, guiding the filly along the fence for a nice score. I still didn't learn my lesson, not even after he did it again to get up for third two races later. I apparently failed to take notice of the zone Borel was in when he again won race 5 aboard Jazz in the Park.
As I sat through the press conferences afterwards and had time to digest the huge upset, I finally realized what had happened. Calvin Borel owns Churchill. He stole Derby 135 aboard a horse that 99% of us disregarded. If there was ever a jockey who single-handedly guided his horse to a Derby win, it was Borel. Take nothing away from Mine That Bird, he was a deserving winner, but Borel made it happen. He knew the rail was playing fast and he can always find room in a spot where other riders are reluctant to go. He did it all weekend. Heck, he's been doing it his whole career. Churchill is his home.
And now, aboard the most unlikely of horses, he scored his second Kentucky Derby. Go Calvin.
Other random thoughts from Derby 135
--I had the feeling it was going to be a weird day when I walked into the press box at 8:15 a.m. and was handed a press release saying that I Want Revenge had been scratched. My first reaction was to feel some sadness for Joe Talamo, who had to be crushed to lose his first Derby mount.
--The highlight of my Derby came earlier in the day when I got a chance to interview Rachel Mattson and her parents. Rachel is the little 7-year-old girl who has a rare blood disorder. Through Make a Wish Foundation, she was given the chance to come to Churchill Downs to experience Oaks and Derby weekend. A horse lover, Rachel's favorite horse is Rachel Alexandra (for obvious reasons). She got to pet the amazing filly in the paddock before the race, watch her win the Oaks in stunning fashion, and take her picture with the horse in the winner's circle after race. And being the class guy that trainer Hal Wiggins is, he gave the brave girl Rachel Alexandra's halter as a keepsake. The best news is, after a successful bone marrow transplant a few months ago, there is hope that Rachel will make a full recovery from her life-threatening illness. I can't wait to write an Inside Track story on this.
--For all those who backed Dunkirk, it was a shame to see him stumble badly out of the gate. He never recovered from it and finished mid-pack.
--It was equally disappointing to hear that Friesan Fire grabbed a quarter out of the gate. Needless to say, his chances, along with Larry Jones', went down the tubes in an instant. That is horse racing.
--As improbable as it was to see a longshot like Mine That Bird win the Derby, it was equally as improbable to find out about the winning connections. Trainer Chip Woolley Jr., and owners "Doc" Blach and Mark Allen are the unlikeliest Derby winners I have ever seen. Wearing cowboy hats and leather jackets, the humble connections seemed like fish out of water as they did their best to answer questions in the post race press conference. There aren't many Derby winning owners who drive 21 hours from New Mexico to Louisville and have their pick-up truck break down along the way. Woolley, who is based out of Sunland Park in New Mexico, was 1-for-32 this year coming into the Derby. Unbelievable. Congratulations guys.
--Glad to see all the starters came back safely and there were no serious injuries to speak of.