Haskin's Derby Recap: Rare Bird Sighting

Haskin's Derby Recap: Rare Bird Sighting
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Mine That Bird leaves the rest behind in the Kentucky Derby.
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Well, we saw one bird fly over the rainbow. The vast majority of experts and racing fans were astounded, aghast, and amazed at Mine That Bird’s otherworldly performance in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), in which he took off on a demonic dash as if he were being chased by a swarm of angry hornets.

 

It was unlike anything seen before in the Run for the Roses, or anywhere for that matter. Where it came from, no one knows. But you can bet all eyes will be glued to Mine That Bird in the Preakness to see if he can do it again. This will either prove to be one of the biggest fluke performances of all time or one of the most remarkable rebirths ever witnessed in the career of a Thoroughbred racehorse.

 

Mine That Bird turned speed figures and other handicapping tools into a pile of useless numbers and equations that had no bearing on the 135th Kentucky Derby.

 

We have learned that the horse’s two owners have farms in Roswell, New Mexico. As far  as we know there have been no sightings of equine aliens, until now.

 

So, what is the story behind this diminutive gelding and his band of buckaroos?  

 

A log on one of Columbus’ ships read: “Following the sun we left the old world.”

 

Trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley and groom and exercise rider Charlie Figueroa followed the scent of roses when they left Sunland Park, New Mexico for their new world in a Turnbow box stall trailer, carrying a 3-year-old son of Birdstone   – Mining My Own, by Smart Strike   named Mine That Bird. Their destination was Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. To Woolley and Figueroa it was a 40-hour journey covering 1,466 miles. To most everyone else it might as well have been light years.

 

Although it wasn’t exactly Darwin’s Journey of Discovery, it proved to be one of the great odysseys in the annals of the Triple Crown, as Mine That Bird shocked the world by coming from last in the 19-horse field, more than 20 lengths off the pace, to win by 6 3/4 lengths under Calvin Borel, paying $103.20, the second-highest payoff in Derby history.

 

Woolley, a native of Raton, N.M. and a former rodeo bareback rider, 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 fibia, the latter requiring a dozen screws to be inserted.

 

Woolley was in need of a groom for Mine That Bird after the gelding’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 Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell. 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 veterinarian Leonard Blach, owner of Buena Suerte Equine, also in Roswell, had purchased shortly before last 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.

 

So, off the trio went on their quest for the roses, with Woolley setting the GPS system in his pickup truck for Louisville, Ky. Woolley had no aspirations of winning the Kentucky Derby after Mine That Bird had been defeated twice at Sunland Park – a second-place finish in the Borderland Derby and a fourth in the $900,000 Sunland Park Derby. But he was hoping that with a change of tactics – taking back some eight to 10 lengths and making one run – the horse could close well enough to finish respectably and earn a trip to New York for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

 

Before starting out, they converted the four stalls on the van into two in order to make Mine That Bird more comfortable. Although he had Figueroa with him, Woolley drove the whole way himself, despite his inability to use his right foot.

 

“Chip likes to be hands on whatever he can do and as much as he can do, said Woolley’s girlfriend Kim Carr. “He normally gallops his own horses, and it was very hard for him not to be on the horse and feeling him every day. He doesn’t want to trust anyone when it comes to this horse. He wants to see every oat he eats. But he and Charlie got along great.”

 

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 van 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, who had never laid eyes on Mine That Bird before, was briefed by Woolley on the horse’s habits and how he wanted things done.

 

Each day, 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 track and not once did the horse come back blowing. The day Borel worked him (April 27) he brought him back in the barn and the horse almost unseated the jockey in the shedrow. Figueroa knew he was ready.

 

Shortly after they arrived, former trainer Murray Johnson showed up at the barn looking to sell Woolley one of his Niagara Equissage machines. Woolley told Johnson he was looking for Mine That Bird to run well enough to go on to the Belmont Stakes and had him use it on the horse every day.

 

“He thrived, and his muscles were in excellent shape,” said Johnson, who trained five-time Breeders’ Cup Classic starter Perfect Drift.

 

While at Churchill, Mine That Bird went virtually unnoticed as he quietly went about his business, residing at the far end of Barn 42. His gallops became stronger and it was obvious he was relishing the track.

 

One morning, Jean Amick and Juliet Hogue from Second Stride (which re-trains retired horses and find them homes) showed up at the barn 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.”

 

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.

 

Allen had a minor incident himself, as he was delayed getting to Louisville when his pickup truck broke down in Sweetwater, Texas.

 

Mine That Bird, despite his feeble price tag as a yearling, was the Sovereign Award winner as champion 2-year-old in Canada, winning the Grey Stakes (gr. III), 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.

 

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 300 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. “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.

 

By now, everyone knows what happened. On the far turn, Mine That Bird in the blink of an eye took off from well in the back of the pack as if someone had given him a hotfoot. He could be seen flying past horses on the inside as if moving in a different time frame than the others.

 

Turning into the stretch after a mile in 1:37 2/5, Pioneerof the Nile   took over the lead followed in hot pursuit by Papa Clem   and Musket Man. The rest were going nowhere on the sticky track…except one. Yes, it was Borel, or Bo-rail, as he’s known, again making a frenzied dash along the inside. He moved outside a tiring Atomic Rain and then darted back to the rail, squeezing through a narrow opening inside Join in the Dance. Before anyone realized what was happening, Mine That Bird and Borel flew past Pioneerof the Nile as if he and Papa Clem and Musket Man were mired in quicksand. He opened up, not by a length at a time, but seemingly by two and three lengths at a time. 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.

 

Race caller Tom Durkin summed up the shocking result by calling it “an impossible result.”

 

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.”

 

Since arriving in Louisville, Woolley was 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.

 

Perhaps trainer Nick Zito put the race in proper perspective as he headed to the track to wait for Nowhere to Hide, who finished 17th at odds of 45-1. Zito did get some consolation, having trained Mine That Bird’s sire to a shocking victory over Smarty Jones   in the 2004 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), so he knows about big upsets.

 

Birdstone,” Zito said with a sense of pride. He then added in simple words: “See, that’s why they run the race.”

 

 

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