by Dan Liebman
Trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr. had a rough start to the year. He crashed his motorcycle in some gravel and broke his leg, and his stable was having a tough time winning races, with one lone maiden winner from 32 starts.
On May 2, his year got better. Chip Woolley won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Which is exactly the way the horse business works. One day you are up; one day you are down.
Chip Woolley had never won a graded stakes before. Stop. Make that had never had a starter in a graded stakes before. Now he will forever be known as the trainer of Mine That Bird, winner of the 135th Kentucky Derby.
There were lots of good story lines in the 2009 Derby, but it doesn't get any better than this.
After the race, Woolley wished people would stop talking about his crutches and the fact he vanned Mine That Bird from New Mexico to Kentucky himself. Talk about the horse, he suggested.
People break their legs, and many trainers trailer their own horses. But few win the Kentucky Derby.
Chip Woolley has done all of the above.
Through May 2, Steve Asmussen is the leading trainer in North America by wins with 207. In the past 25 years combined, Woolley has won 178 Thoroughbred races (he also trains Quarter Horses). The most in a single year: 21 in 2002.
The fact is, there are far more Chip Woolleys training horses than Steve Asmussens. Throughout the country, and around the globe for that matter, there are countless trainers who have in common a love of the horse and the dream of having their hands on the big horse.
Asmussen has had his hands on many good horses, most recently two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.
Now, Chip Woolley has his hands on a good horse, one that passed the other 18 runners in the Derby field like they were standing still.
Woolley gave much of the credit to jockey Calvin Borel, and for good reason. When Mine That Bird was squeezed at the start, Borel did not panic. He did what Calvin "Bo-Rail" does: get over to the rail. But even Borel could not have envisioned how full of run the gelding by Birdstone would be until he reached the three-eighths pole, when Mine That Bird was in overdrive while the others were seemingly staggering home.
Borel had to come off the rail just briefly, to pass Atomic Rain, but as he has done so often-including in his 2007 Derby score aboard Street Sense-he skimmed the rail to victory.
The previous day, Borel did not have to worry about being on the rail while riding Rachel Alexandra in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).
While the Derby was stunning by the fact the winner paid $103.20, the Oaks was stunning by the fact the winner won by 201/4 lengths.
The daughter of Medaglia d'Oro was so dominant Borel could have guided her to the outside rail and still won.
While the Derby was Woolley's first time at Churchill Downs, Hal Wiggins, who trains Rachel Alexandra, has stabled at the track regularly since 1993. Try to find a nicer guy on the backstretch and the search will prove futile.
Unlike for Woolley, it was not Wiggins' first graded stakes win, though it was his first grade I victory. And, although he has trained good horses before, he certainly has not had one as talented as Rachel Alexandra in the shedrow.
Fans are already dreaming of a Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic (gr. I) featuring Rachel Alexandra and unbeaten champion Zenyatta.
As for the gutsy little gelding Mine That Bird, well, the weeks and months ahead will prove whether he is a one-hit wonder or racing's latest star.
Either way, we can now talk about the horse, not the crutches his trainer uses or the van he is transported in.