By Bill Mooney
A new chapter in the history of West Virginia racing began being written at 1:47 p.m. EDT Jluy 24. That’s when this year’s Kentucky Derby – Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner, Mine That Bird, stepped off the van at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort.
Mine That Bird’s next start will come at Mountaineer Aug. 1, in the 40th running of the West Virginia Derby (gr. II). It will be the first time in the state’s history that any Kentucky Derby winner has run at a West Virginia track.
Trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr. said Mine That Bird will “gallop (at Mountaineer) on July 25-26, and do a four- or five-furlong breeze on Monday. We’ll walk him on Tuesday and then gallop up to the race.” George Smith, stable hand from Woolley’s home state of New Mexico, will handle exercise chores.
“When he gallops, it will probably two circuits of the oval – won’t take more than ten minutes,” Woolley said. “Mine That Bird’s a pretty laid-back horse, he doesn’t need much. Indeed, the gelded son of Birdstone reminds one of a superbly conditioned middle weight prize fighter – not bulging with muscles, but lean, sharp, and fit, a package of coiled strength, which is the way it usually is with top-tier Thoroughbreds.”
The six and a half-hour van ride from Churchill Downs in Louisville was uneventful, or at least mostly so. “Right at the end, we kind of got lost,” Woolley said. “The GPS in my truck sent us to the intersection of 2nd Street and Indiana Avenue (in the nearby town of Chester).
“There was nothing there but a bunch of houses, and some kids playing on swings,” said Woolley. “I said, ‘I don’t think this is it.’ Then a guy who’s a valet at Mountaineer saw us and said, ‘I bet you’re the Kentucky Derby guy. Get back on the main drag and head south.’ And we did and we got there.”
Mountaineer will provide 24-hour security at the track’s stakes barn. The whole facility promises to be a lively place on West Virginia Derby weekend. The race, which will be televised live from 5 – 6 p.m. EDT on Fox Sports Net, will receive national and international coverage.
Print reporters from as far away as London, England, are coming in to cover the West Virginia Derby. A racing fan called the Mountaineer press office this past Tuesday and said that he and his family are driving 800 miles from Madison, Wisconsin, to see Mine That Bird run.
Of course, Mine That Bird’s credentials are substantial: a driving, 6 ¾-length victory in the Kentucky Derby; a fast-closing, second-place finish in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I); and a third-place effort in the Belmont stakes (gr. I). Mine That Bird has won five of his 11 career starts, has placed in three other efforts, and has earned $2,121,581.
No other West Virginia Derby participant has ever come to the race with such a resume, and Mine That Bird will be ridden at Mountaineer by the two-time Eclipse Award winner Mike Smith.
Mine That Bird’s effort in the West Virginia Derby will be his first start in eight weeks. No horse has ever won the West Virginia Derby following such a lengthy layoff. “He had three hard races (the Triple Crown events) back-to-back, and we wanted to give him plenty of time to settle and build up again,” Woolley said.
There was a time when one to three weeks between races was considered a sufficient break. “But modern training methods have changed,” said Mark Patterson, the assistant racing secretary and co-simulcast host at Mountaineer.
“An eight-week regimen comprised of only workouts and gallops means we were the primary objective for Mine That Bird,” Patterson said. “And why not? The West Virginia Derby now has grade II status and it’s worth three-quarters of a million.”
Woolley is not unfamiliar with Mountaineer. “I’ve purchased a couple of horses that ran here from (trainer) Mike Maker,” he said. “Bought ‘em after the fact. I’ve watched this place for a long time. I never thought I’d make it out here, but I never thought I’d make it to the Kentucky Derby, either.”