This Kentucky Derby offers chills, thrills
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby Saturday.
That's hard to even type with a straight face.
They've been running this race for 135 years now. The sight of a 51-1 shot -- especially this 51-1 shot -- charging along the rail in the homestretch has to rank as the craziest, flukiest thing anyone has ever seen beneath the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May.
Not a single sane individual saw this coming. Not even the people with a vested interest in the horse.
"To be honest, I didn't have any real feeling that I could win the Derby," trainer Chip Woolley said.
"I would've been happy just to have lit the board with this horse," co-owner Mark Allen said.
"Really and truly, you've got to be surprised," said jockey Calvin Borel.
Surprised? How about astonished? Dumbfounded? Speechless? There were 153,563 people at Churchill Downs on Saturday, and virtually all of them had to be saying the same thing as Mine That Bird kidnapped the race in the stretch:
Only one horse has won America's most prestigious race at longer odds: Donerail in 1913, at 91-1, as ridden by the immortal Roscoe Goose. But Donerail had to beat only six horses, and actually did it in a then-record time, and actually looks like a sane bet compared to 183-1 Lord Marshall in that same race.
Mine That Bird? The gelding came from 20 lengths behind and absolute last place to punk 18 horses in the slop. He ran away to a disorienting 6¾-length victory over a sketchy collection of competitors. By all that makes sense in racing, he had no right doing so.
Before becoming a racing immortal, he was sold as a yearling to his original owners for $9,500. (Can you even get a Kia for that price?) As a point of comparison, Mine That Bird finished 19 lengths ahead of Dunkirk, who was sold at auction for $3.7 million.
Before arriving at Churchill, Mine That Bird was an underachiever on the obscure New Mexico circuit -- which is kind of like going from playing in a bad garage band in Dubuque to rave reviews at major clubs in Los Angeles. Finishing fourth in the Sunland Derby in his last race does not exactly establish a colt as a contender. In fact, Mine That Bird hasn't won a race since Oct. 5, 2008, when he was under different ownership and doing his work at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto.
A four-race winning streak as a 2-year-old at Woodbine gave the horse something of a profile, and Allen and co-owner Leonard Blach decided to buy him for $400,000. Everything thereafter had been a disappointment -- until they decided to take a swing at the Derby.
The horse was vanned from New Mexico to Louisville by the trainer. Can you picture Bob Baffert behind the wheel of a horse van, hauling a Derby colt across the country?
The answer to that is no. But the folklore surrounding Woolley's cross-country drive grew substantially during the week.
"They make out like we hauled this horse in a '67 GMC with stock racks, but we actually got a super nice van," Woolley said. "There's been plenty made of that and maybe now they will start talking about something else."
OK, how about this: Woolley had won exactly one race in 2009. Not one stakes race -- one race, period.
"We've had a rough start to the year," understated Woolley, who limped around the Downs all week on crutches after breaking his right leg in a motorcycle accident.
Woolley is a former rodeo rider, and his connections brought a Cowboy Up vibe to the Derby. In a sport often ruled by sheikhs and captains of industry, the Derby has now been captured by a bunch of toughs in jeans, boots, cowboy hats, string ties, turquoise jewelry and he-man facial hair.
Allen, the co-owner, stood up at the postrace news conference and revealed a fabulously gaudy Kentucky Derby belt buckle, roughly the size of a Frisbee. Many Derby owners flew here on private jets; Allen drove his own pickup. And it broke down in Texas.
"For the record," Woolley said, "it did have warranties."
There is only one thing about Mine That Bird's connections that says "big-time," and that's Borel.
How the other 18 connections in the Derby let one of the all-time great Churchill riders wind up on a 51-1 shot is astonishing. He won the Kentucky Derby in 2007 aboard Street Sense, then he absolutely destroyed the Kentucky Oaks aboard Rachel Alexandra on Friday (the filly was by far the best 3-year-old horse here this weekend, and would have won the Derby without breathing hard).
Borel had hitched his '09 Derby wagon to Beethoven, but when that colt was injured in March he became a free agent. There was some speculation Borel could wind up on Square Eddie, but he was injured and pronounced out of the Derby as well. So Borel went from royalty Friday in the Oaks to a presumed pauper Saturday in the Derby.
"I was absolutely surprised," Woolley said of Borel's availability to ride his horse.
After being ridden by a string of undistinguished jockeys, Borel assumed the mount and first got on Mine That Bird's back Monday morning. He gave the horse an unmemorable workout, running much slower than prerace favorite Friesan Fire that same day.
Friesan Fire would finish 18th, one of the biggest busts in Derby memory.
Borel, his fiancée, Lisa Funk, and their families ordered pizza Friday night and watched replays of Rachel Alexandra's awesome 20-length Oaks win. Borel worked a horse Saturday morning for his trainer brother, Cecil, then went home and had breakfast. He went to the races later Saturday with tempered expectations at best, not dreaming that he'd win the Oaks-Derby double.
Chances of that happening diminished even further after the start, when Mine That Bird was shut off shortly after the start and then shuffled back to dead last. Like, way last. After a quarter mile of the 1¼-mile race, the horse was six lengths behind the 18th-place horse.
"I about quit watching," Woolley said of that dismal moment.
But the eternally unhurried and unworried Borel knew what to do. He got his colt to his personal garden spot, the rail, and commenced another in an endless series of nervy rides along the shortest distance to the finish line.
They call him Calvin "Bo-rail" at Churchill because of his ability to skim along the furthest inside position. That's how he won the '07 Derby aboard Street Sense, and that's how he won this one, too.
Mine That Bird was so far behind heading into the backstretch that he wasn't even in the wide-angle replay. In fact, he stayed laughably last for three-quarters of a mile before unleashing the winning move in the final half a mile.
Borel was at his best then. He urged the small, nimble colt through two tight rail spots in the turn and then, in the stretch, scooted him through a hole about a yard wide. It takes an absolutely fearless jockey to make those moves, and nobody is more blithely unconcerned about his safety than Borel.
"You've got to ride him to win," Borel said. "That's what I do best."
When Mine That Bird exploded into the clear, the race was suddenly and stunningly over. Borel's ride was so low-stress in the stretch that he took the time to point back toward his fiancée in the grandstand.
By the time Borel flashed under the finish line, three things were obvious in slack-jawed hindsight:
1. Everyone with a live Derby shot should have Calvin Borel on speed dial, or risk looking foolish.
2. Everyone riding against Calvin Borel at Churchill Downs should do everything in their power to shut down the rail, or risk looking foolish.
3. Everyone looked foolish when this race was over. Except for the very few bettors who put money on Mine That Bird, and the human connections who rode him to improbable immortality.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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