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The straight shooter

5/6/2009

"There's no shame in running last in the Kentucky Derby," trainer Chip Woolley leaned over his crutches and told me the first morning I met him, more than a week out from Derby 135. "Mine That Bird could run last next Saturday and I'd still have to run last the next two years in a row just to match Todd Pletcher."

The statement was said in complete sincerity and dead-pan honesty, explicitly meant to magnify just how difficult a race the Kentucky Derby is, and by no means a shot at Pletcher. To Woolley, a former rodeo bareback rider who had never trained a Thoroughbred to win a race with a purse greater than $60,000, there was no fear.

And why should there have been?

If the custom-suited Pletcher could run last in 2006, 2007 and 2008, armed with the richest-bankrolled owners in the sport, why should a cowboy in pressed Wranglers and a WWE-sized belt buckle be worried that his pint-sized gelding would somehow embarrass anyone, much less the grandeur of the Derby itself.

In the end, it was Woolley's dark mustache that curled the biggest smile and had the last laugh as Mine That Bird did the unfathomable, rocketing past 18 others and both figuratively and literally putting a New Mexico-sized cowboy boot in the ass of any stuffy Kentucky Derby traditionalists.

Meanwhile, the victory by Woolley marked the sixth Kentucky Derby rookie to be adorned in roses in the past seven years. He follows Barclay Tagg, John Servis, John Shirreffs, Michael Matz and Rick Dutrow into a suddenly overflowing club. While this group may have lacked experience at the big dance, conversely each went into the mix without the pressures of past failures, of trying to fix what was not broken or trying to over-coach things.

On Oaks morning, I stopped by the Woolley barn for my daily routine as a member of the official Kentucky Derby notes team, where I was assigned four horses to cover all week. That morning, co-owner Mark Allen was giving the 'Bird a sponge bath and came over to share some words after his chores were completed.

We shared a few laughs as Woolley soon hobbled on his crutches out of the stable to see what the cackles were all about. I smiled and made up a story just to get a rise. "Hey, Chip," I said. "Mark just told me that if you guys get beat, he's giving the horse to Baffert."

Without hesitation, Woolley replied, "Well, hell, if I owned the horse he'd already be with Baffert."

It's that kind of comfort in your own skin that has branded recent Kentucky Derby-winning trainers, rendering previous experience far down the latter of necessary qualities. From Tagg to Servis to Dutrow, those guys had it. So, too, does Woolley, even if his statistical resume may never get him hired with the big firms. No one will confuse him as a future Hall of Famer, but Woolley now has a trophy for his case that many a Hall of Famer wishes he had.

No one ever said the Kentucky Derby was fair and just. After all, how could UAE ruler Sheikh Mohammad pay to ship two horses halfway around the world and then stand two shoulder lengths further up the rail than me to watch Derby 135? It was that kind of scene as I darn-near rubbed elbows with royalty and eventually tipped my hat to a bunch of cowboys from New Mexico.

If you didn't see Mine That Bird coming, don't be embarrassed. Neither did NBC's second-to-none announcer Tom Durkin. His call was eerily reminiscent to ESPN Breeders' Cup voice Trevor Denman's surprise in the 2006 Juvenile when Street Sense sling-shotted up the fence to a runaway victory. Not coincidentally, Calvin Borel rode both with a master's stroke in the saddle.

Even with the strange, late plot twist, the black-hatted cowboys already were scripted in this Derby drama. Jeff Mullins starred in the leading role with I Want Revenge, but a touchy ankle relegated the Wood Memorial winner and morning line favorite to the wings, while dark-brimmed Chip Woolley's Mine That Bird went from an extra to a star. You can't make this stuff up; not even with Hollywood analogies.

For all of those who whined about who belonged and who did not, let the 2009 Kentucky Derby serve as full notice that you have no idea what you're talking about. The crying forces behind Mafaaz's automatic bid said he was a second-rate European with no right to earn Churchill's promotional blessing to start. While he did not make the starting gate anyway, there will be sentiment to nip this kind of automatic qualifier in the bud from the legions of racing loudmouths.

Others chirped that 2-year-old graded stakes earnings should not count, or count as much, as those earned during the 3-year-old year. Earnings registered on all-weather tracks and turf courses should be weighted differently than dirt, and the like. And, the calls came that foreign earnings should be considered folly.

Truth be told, you would have been eliminating the '09 Derby winner had his scores on Canadian Polytrack last year not been counted. Had there been 21 horses to choose from this year, I'm inclined to think a human panel would have taken every horse except Mine That Bird, chiefly because of a massive bias against horses who do not race in the prime locations of New York, Florida or California.

Speaking strictly on accomplishment and not what any of us think as handicappers, this horse had as good of a resume as anyone in the field. The second choice in the wagering, Dunkirk, still was eligible for an entry level allowance race, while Mine That Bird already owned three stakes victories. He was Canada's Champion 2-Year-Old last year, and only he and Pioneerof The Nile had managed to ever group four consecutive wins together at any points in their careers. They ran one-two, by the way, and both were sloughed off as horses who did not have the "mathematical" prowess in the speed department to be competitive. What a joke that turned out to be, and I cringe the day that some kind of speed figure or numerical rating is used as a qualifying barometer to anything of importance.

There's no Monday Morning Quarter-backing going on here. I didn't see Mine That Bird coming, and I spent more time with him at Derby 135 than anyone not wearing a cowboy hat. Trust me, when I went to Chip's barn each morning, he was happy to see me. There weren't many bypassers all week who wanted to talk Mine That Bird. Woolley always stood and propped himself up on his crutches and spoke with sincerity and realism. But, truth be told, I didn't even put a two-spot on him out of sentiment, and lost plenty while betting on others. Yet I couldn't be happier for the result, no matter how confusing it is to my handicapping senses.

Scrambling to get post-race quotes on the track while Mine That Bird was still pulling up and returning to the winner's circle, I found a band of trainers, jockeys, media members and fans all smiling and shaking their heads in disbelief. The result was so unfathomable that it was comical. Rafael Bejarano's eyes grew like saucers as he tried to describe to me his shock when he saw the winner flying past him on the rail. Bob Baffert literally laughed as we walked through the tunnel back toward the paddock amongst a tiny gathering of reporters. He joked that his wife Jill always bets Calvin Borel on Derby weekend, and that he told her "Forget about Calvin in the Derby, he doesn't have a chance."

When I reminded Baffert of the irony that he lost the Kentucky Derby to a Quarter Horse trainer from the southwest, he quipped right back, "Yeah, and one with a bum leg!"

The greatest two minutes in sports once again lived up to its nickname. The only shame is that we have to wait 51 more weeks until we can live it again. Until then, hitch up your trailer. It's on to Pimlico!

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.