As Mine That Bird, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), quietly goes about his business at Pimlico in preparation for the May 16 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), so does the man who has been at his side since the Birdstone gelding’s unlikely Triple Crown quest began.
Mine That Bird’s groom and exercise rider, 53-year-old Charlie Figueroa, is a third-generation horseman who has known the gelding’s co-owner, Mark Allen, for 20 years.
“A lot of members of my family were either jockeys or trainers,” explained Figueroa as he went about washing leg wraps the morning before the Preakness. “I enjoy the horses. I don’t just mess with the races; I am a team roper, too. I ride horses all day long even when I am off of work.”
Allen owns Double Eagle Ranch in New Mexico, and usually Figueroa, who is an Arizona native, works on the ranch breaking and training the young horses.
“When he bought this ranch, he kept trying me to go work for him, and finally I did at the end of 2007 or so,” said Figueroa. “I train the horses at the ranch and get them ready to send to whoever they are going to.”
Figueroa became part of Mine That Bird’s story as a result of hands-on trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley breaking his leg in a motorcycle accident. When the decision was made to enter Mine That Bird in the Run for the Roses, Allen wanted someone he trusted riding the gelding in the mornings.
“When Chip broke his leg and they were going to bring this horse, Mark said he didn’t want to have me at the ranch and have somebody he didn’t know riding his horse,” said Figueroa. “Mine That Bird’s really a pleasure to be around. I groom him, I do everything. He’s super nice; he’s just like a pet. A lot of horses that are that good are really tough to gallop, and he’s not. It makes it easy to train him because you can go as fast as you want without him fighting you.”
Figueroa has been enjoying his time on the Triple Crown trail and is appreciative of how he has been treated along the way.
“I was enjoying it all even before the (Derby win),” he said. “People treat you super out here. Even the people off the track know so much about the race. Back where we are from, you might be in a little town and you tell them you are here for the races, and they might not even know there is a racetrack. That’s why it is so much nicer out here.”
After being on Mine That Bird in the mornings leading up to the Derby, Figueroa was confident that the horse would run a good race, but watching him win by daylight at odds of 50-1 was unexpected.
“When Mine That Bird got by them, it was still an eight of a mile out, but I was already screaming and hollering,” he said. “I knew unless he fell down, we were beating them. Then to watch him draw out like that kind of amazed me. He just kept drawing out and drawing out.”
On May 16, Mine That Bird’s connections will face off against a full field in the quest to capture the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The gelding will not have the services of jockey Calvin Borel, who rode him in the Derby, because Borel is committed to ride morning-line favorite Rachel Alexandra. But one thing Figueroa knows is he won’t have to worry about the mental preparedness of his charge.
“When we walked out of the paddock (for the Derby), people started chanting “Bo, Bo, Bo” in the tunnel and all the other horses started jumping up and down and getting silly, but his ears weren’t even moving,” Figueroa said. “The valet told me, ‘Man what about the mind on this horse!’ I said, ‘You know, that’s not going to beat us. If he gets out run, it’s because his legs don’t go fast enough.’ ”