Commentary

Woolley still revels in Derby shocker

Updated: April 29, 2010, 9:28 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Chip WoolleyHorsephotos.comChip Woolley trains Mine That Bird, upset winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Chip Woolley is back.

Got no horses. Got nothing to do, other than Be Chip Woolley. And in this town on this week, that's a fun job.

The man who trained the horse that shocked the world in the Kentucky Derby a year ago, Mine That Bird, is meandering around the barn area at Churchill Downs. And where he goes, handshakes, back slaps, party invitations and can-I-get-a-picture requests follow.

This is his "Cheers" -- the place where everybody knows his name, and is certainly glad he came back.

Here, thanks to a life-altering two minutes, he is more than just a small-time New Mexico thoroughbred trainer whose career has unceremoniously returned to normal. Here, he is a celebrity and a savant, asked repeatedly to handicap this year's race. Here, they now display the crutches he hobbled around on all last spring in the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Woolley still has the black cowboy hat and the Fu Manchu mustache. The only outward changes from last year are the fact he's no longer slowed down by a badly broken right leg, and the perpetual lump in his throat.

"It's been surprisingly emotional," he said. "I don't think until you run in the Derby you can really grasp how big the Derby is, and how historic it is. When you're in it, everything is happening at such a high rate of speed, you don't have a chance to reflect on it and enjoy it."

This time, he's had a chance to reflect and enjoy. Naturally, that included a trip to the Derby Museum to see his crutches, and watch the race from his wildest dreams.

"A lot wells up inside of you," Woolley said of watching the video. "If it don't choke you up, you need to quit.

"Coming back, you're just overwhelmed. You realize how hard it is to get here, and how hard it is to win the race."

That Woolley did, somehow. The proof that it really happened is in gold letters on the fašade of the Churchill Downs paddock:

Mine That Bird 2009

It's right there where they annually put the name of the most recent Derby winner. So it wasn't a dream, it wasn't fiction, it wasn't Hollywood. A 50-1 gelding who hadn't won a race in seven months and who floundered on the obscure New Mexico racing circuit really did win the biggest race in America.

Only once -- Donerail, at 91-1 in 1913 -- has a longer shot won the Derby.

"I really never thought I could win," Woolley said. "I thought I could finish fourth or so."

But when Calvin Borel bravely and brilliantly urged Mine That Bird through a narrow opening on the rail and incomprehensibly drew off, fourth was out the window. So were third and second. A blanket of roses materialized in the horse's immediate future.

And the world got an introduction to the unvarnished cowboys who looked out of place amid the bluegrass bluebloods -- and out of place at the postrace press conference. Frankly, they looked as stunned as all the people asking them questions.

Borel, we knew. He'd just won his first Derby two years earlier aboard Street Sense. But nobody knew a thing about owners Mark Allen and Leonard Blach. Or about Woolley.

The backstory was all charm: how Woolley personally drove Mine That Bird across the country to Kentucky in a trailer hitched to his Ford F-450, "with my broken leg on the god-danged dashboard, trying to keep the swelling down." How he and the horse whiled away the days leading up to the race in complete obscurity, overlooked by everyone. How they combined with Borel to shock the racing world.

And then Mine That Bird showed it wasn't a complete fluke, finishing a game second in the Preakness to super filly Rachel Alexandra and then third in the Belmont as the only horse to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

After that, the joyride sputtered.

Mine That Bird was upset in the West Virginia Derby, finishing third, and then was ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall. The gelding was, in Woolley's words, "spent" after that, and has not raced since then.

Currently Mine That Bird is at Allen's training facility, and there have been rumors that the owners want to take him out of Woolley's barn permanently and send him to a different trainer.

"There's been rumors," Woolley said. "But as far as I know, I train the horse. I feel pretty secure. Me and Mark talked about it."

How would he feel to have the horse taken away from him, after delivering the racing thrill of a lifetime?

"It would be shameful," Woolley said.

The trainer said he expects Mine That Bird to be ready to resume racing soon. But in the meantime, the Derby victory has not led to a significant boost in business for Woolley. He said he's added "maybe one or two clients, not what you'd expect." His hopes of setting up an operation at Churchill have not materialized.

The training statistics from Sunland Park in New Mexico reflect the sobering return to normalcy. Woolley was the No. 10 trainer in the park's December-April meet, with 65 starters, 15 wins and 33 finishes in the money. His winning percentage (23) and in-the-money percentage (51) were solid, but his horses earned just $253,759.

He earned more than six times that amount in two minutes on the first Saturday in May last year. Which is one reason why Woolley wants to come back with a horse sometime in the near future.

"You win a Derby and it'll light a fire in you to come back," he said. "There's no feeling like it. You'll be on a quest for the rest of your life for that next one."

In the meantime, the cowboy in the black hat will settle for the enjoyable job of Being Chip Woolley, in a place where that means something special.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.