(Edited Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort release)
Mine That Bird breezed through a four-furlong workout at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort on July 27. The track’s clockers recorded a time of :49 4/5 as the Kentucky Derby winner continued his preparations for Aug. 1, $750,000 West Virginia Derby (gr. II).
The gelded son of Birdstone came out on the track at 6:55 a.m., just as sun was rising over the foothills of the Appalachians." He was really sharp, we got just about exactly what we wanted out of him," said Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr., Mine That Bird’s 45-year-old trainer.
"We’ll walk him on Tuesday and gallop him on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," Woolley said. "This racetrack going to fit him pretty well, we think. The track was as big a factor as anything in our decision to come to the West Virginia Derby."
John Perez, a 35-year-old jockey from Mountaineer, was aboard for the workout. Perez was raised in nearby Chester, rode his first race at Mountaineer 20 years ago and, interestingly, breezed Curlin before he was transferred from trainer Helen Pitts to Steve Asmussen and became a two-time Horse of the Year.
"Mine That Bird was perfect this morning," said Perez. "He bounced right over the top of the track. It’s really a benefit if you ship in early to Mountaineer. The horse gets used to the surface, to the environment. These people are really making the right moves."
Jennifer Duffy, a racing fan from Wellsville, Ohio, was on the Mountaineer apron with her eight-year-old daughter, Hannah, watching the workout. "We got up bright and early, at 5:30 a.m., to make it over here," said Duffy. "To anyone who’s not a horse lover, they might think it odd. But, for me, it’s all goose bumps and tears to see a horse like this."
The West Virginia Derby will be Mine That Bird’s first start since he finished third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) on June 6. Woolley and the horse’s co-owners, Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, had other options for Mine That Bird’s return, the most noteworthy of which was the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
But while the Haskell and West Virginia Derby are both run at 1 1/8 miles, Woolley believes the latter is a better fit. "At Monmouth, the track’s a lot faster than it is at Mountaineer," Woolley said. "It’s just not a good set-up for us.
"After the Belmont, we took a good look around the country, with the idea of finding the best spot. And we thought that it would be Mountaineer. I studied this very hard. We do want a fast racetrack, but we also need one that a horse can close over. That’s our main focus.
"I would have loved to run Mine That Bird in the Haskell. There’s a lot of money there, a lot of prestige. But the problem is that if you’re not within five or six lengths of the lead early at Monmouth, you have no chance. I know, because I watch the simulcasts of the races from there. I watch them every day.
"You can close somewhat at Monmouth, but you can’t close 20 lengths. And my horse is always going to be 15 to 20 lengths out of it early on. That’s what made him a great horse, when he adapted that (deep closer’s) running style.
"When we decided to come to West Virginia, we didn’t know that \Rachel Alexandra was going to the Haskell," Woolley said. "We thought she might go after (the undefeated racemare) Zenyatta. I was kind of surprised, although Monmouth is dead-suited to Rachel Alexandra’s running style.
"Mine That Bird’s got a great turn of foot for three-eighths of a mile. But if you try to take that out of him early, you lose it on the end, and you end up losing the race. That’s what happened in the Belmont. He made a big move, but he made it too soon. It wasn’t Calvin Borel’s fault. When he moved Mine That Bird to the outside, our horse got too aggressive."
In the West Virginia Derby, Mine That Bird will be ridden by 43-year-old Hall of Famer Mike Smith. "The main focus here will be for Mike to keep the horse covered up early, keep him in behind horses where he’s not trying to run, and then give him some running room and make a move," Woolley said.
"There’s no question that Mine That Bird was the best horse in the Kentucky Derby," said Woolley. "You don’t pass 18 other horses within just three-eights of a mile if you’re not the best."
But, in Woolley’s mind, Mind That Bird’s best effort came two weeks later, when he finished a fast-closing second, in the BlackBerry Preakness (gr. I), beaten by just one diminishing length by Rachel Alexandra.
"We had a ‘garden trip’ in the Kentucky Derby, and squeaked through on the rail," Woolley said" But even if we had taken up and gone around everybody, we still would have won. In the Preakness, though, we had a wide, wide trip, there were horses stacked up going into the far turn. We got checked up twice on the turn. But Mine That Bird just got geared up and came on again. He ran better that day." .
Among other things, Mine That Bird has provided Woolley with a permanent niche in horse racing’s history books.
"A guy like me, I’ve been in this for 25 years, and have never made a mark on the industry," he said. "You can go through a lifetime, and few people notice what you’ve done. Two months after winning the Kentucky Derby, it’s still a hard thing for me to grasp. You always dream of it happening, but you never really think that dream will become reality."