As heavy rain fell on Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr. took it with a smile, even though he is currently on crutches after a motorcycle accident two months ago.
“I enjoy a little rain,” he said. “We don’t see much of it from where I am from.”
That positive attitude was well served on Saturday, when Woolley sent out long shot Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, and the gelding upset the field at odds of 50-1. The 45-year-old conditioner began training in 1983 in his home state of New Mexico, and Mine That Bird was his first starter in the Run for the Roses.
"It's wonderful; it hasn't sunk in," said Woolley. "I just can't say enough. I'm feeling like I never have before. I was thinking (jockey) Calvin Borel is the best, he just rode a huge race, and everybody around him did a great job, and we were just lucky to get there."
Although most people dismissed Mine That Bird's chances in the Derby, Woolley was quietly confident all week that he would make a good showing and be competitive.
“To be honest, I didn't have any real feeling that I could win the Derby," said Woolley. "We wanted to be competitive. We knew we would be more competitive than everybody gave us credit for.
"He’s just been a pleasure to train. He does everything right, every time. He’s not a problem horse at all. He might stop and look at things, but other than that nothing bothers him. He just stands there and takes it all in.”
Woolley has about 25 horses in his care, including several Quarter Horses. He got his start in the Quarter Horse industry but has been making the transition to Thoroughbreds.
“I slowly gravitated to the Thoroughbred industry because of the availability of racing and a chance to be at a place like this,” Woolley explained. “There are so many more open doors for Thoroughbreds.”
Woolley does not come from a racing background. Rather, he injured his shoulder while participating in rodeos during college and that inadvertently led him to his career path.
“I went and started galloping horses at the racetrack to rehab,” he said. “I liked it and never left. I just enjoy the horses and the racing game itself. It’s been a good life for me.”
A hands-on trainer, Woolley has been slightly hampered by his broken leg, which required a plate and 12 screws. However, that has not stopped him from enjoying the Derby experience.
“I have really enjoyed everything, and the people here have been great,” Woolley said. “Being in a place like Louisville, everybody including the waiter at the restaurant has his favorite horse. It’s just super.”
Mine That Bird was Canada’s champion 2-year-old male last season. He is owned by Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, and he was the first Derby starter for the New Mexico residents. Allen and Blach purchased the Birdstone gelding privately last fall for $400,000 after he won three stakes at Woodbine, including the Grey Stakes (Can-III).
Before the Derby, Mine That Bird had not won since being sold to his new connections. His best showing as a 3-year-old had come in Sunland Park’s Borderland Derby when he finished second by a neck.
“If your horse runs his best race that day, no matter where you run you have to be happy,” said Woolley prior to the Kentucky Derby. “That’s just the way it is. If he runs first, fifteenth, or last you have to be happy if your horse had his best effort that day.”
Mine That Bird certainly ran his race under the Twin Spires, and Woolley certainly had to be happy on the first Saturday in May.