It was just four years ago that the impossible became a reality in the world’s most famous Thoroughbred horse race. A little known runner shocked the world as a 50-1 underdog that won the Kentucky Derby in convincing fashion. And for one man it was a day he will never forget.
Mine That Bird was the horse that came from nowhere. Not even a blip on the 2009 Kentucky Derby radar screen, this son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone was one of those “fill the field” horses in the minds of many. But after seeing his last two performances leading up to the first Saturday in May, trainer Chip Woolley was thinking otherwise.
“He ran second in the Borderland Derby off a really bad trip and then was fourth in the Sunland Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico,” says Woolley. “We had really bought him with the Sunland Derby in mind because that is our hometown race and one we really wanted to win. After seeing how he ran in the Borderland in a bad trip I thought then he might be better than we ever thought. Then in the Sunland he again moved way too early and struck the lead before fading to finish fourth. I knew then he was a horse that could be special. We were close in earnings to get in the Kentucky Derby and I figured with the right trip he could get the mile and a quarter and sure enough be a superstar.”
As the calendar turned towards May and more contenders became pretenders, Mine that Bird climbed up the ladder in eligible earnings. With the road to Kentucky Derby 135 just about three weeks away, Woolley and his team were notified that Mine that Bird was eligible to fly into the starting gates. After some discussion with Double Eagle ownership group, Woolley was making preparation to head towards Louisville with his horse in tow, literally.
As is well documented, the horse that was originally purchased as a yearling for $9500 was loaded into a trailer and began his trek to the most hallowed of horse racing grounds. Leaving their home base in New Mexico with Woolley’s leg in a cast because of a broken foot, it was Churchill Downs or bust. Some 1200 miles later, Woolley pulled his pickup truck onto the backside barn area in Louisville.
“I knew in my mind with the right ride this horse would relish the mile and a quarter,” says Woolley.“I wasn’t sure if we could win, but I felt like we could run in the top five.When we loaded up and left New Mexico I really never even thought about the reality of it all. I have taken horses all over the world and I thought this was just another trip to run my horse. During the trip it just didn’t dawn on me that we were going to run for the holy grail of horse racing. But when we pulled onto the backside at Churchill the night we arrived and I saw the lights in the twin spires I knew we were here and it all hit me. That was the first time I wondered what we had stepped off into.”
Nerves may have crept into the pickup truck with Woolley, but it never made it into the trailer. Mine That Bird was as relaxed and focused as any horse on the grounds. Indeed, this grandson of 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone was preparing for his run towards immortality.
“Once we arrived, he just trained like a monster,” says Woolley. “Mine That Bird just loved the Churchill surface and I knew he was going to ready come Derby day.He was fresh and I never doubted that we could be in the top tier of horses. I am not going to lie and say I knew we were going to win, but I knew he was sitting on a big effort because he was just going over the track so well leading up to the race.”
Then May 2, 2009 dawned and Mine That Bird was one of nineteen runners that made his way from the backside barns to the starting gates beneath those hallowed twin spires.With Churchill Downs veteran Calvin Borel in the irons, Woolley covered the game plan of taking the horse back and letting him relax. On a track rated as sloppy due to some rather heavy rains, Borel did almost exactly as instructed and used his ground-saving strategy to perfection.
“The plan was to take him back and be about 15 or 20 lengths off the pace early,” says Chip. “When they came by the stands the first time and I saw he was about 30 lengths back I was a little worried. But to Calvin’s credit he didn’t get excited and just sat on the horse and was patient with him.”
As the race unfolded and Mine That Bird languished in last, fellow longshot Join in the Dance led the field through an opening quarter (22.98) that was somewhat stiffer before settling down through the first half mile (47.23). As the horses raced up the backstretch, the little gelding began to move as they approached the far turn with his tank still full of run.
“When we reached the three eighths pole I knew we still had all of our horse and he was ready to move,” says Woolley. “Calvin went right with me on what we wanted to do and how we wanted to run. He did a phenomenal job of getting our horse in position to win. I knew at that point we were going to get a piece of the pie. When he blew past them at the eighth pole I knew we were going to win. I never saw the rest of the race because we were just celebrating too hard. I just got so excited I took off without my crutches. I didn’t know where I was going because I had never been to Churchill. All I knew was we had just won the Kentucky Derby with a 50-1 shot.”
Woolley may not have seen the final sixteenth of a mile, but 153,563 others at Churchill did. Mine That Bird exploded to an impossible upset that even caught race caller Tom Durkin by surprise. With an emphatic 6 ¾ length win (2nd largest in Derby history), this diminutive dynamo had set the sports world on its ear.
“It was truly an overwhelming experience at the time,” says Woolley. “I cried that day because it was such a humbling experience. When we left New Mexico headed for the Derby, I had no idea what winning the Kentucky Derby really meant.”
Now that a few years have passed, Woolley has an even better understanding of what he and his horse accomplished. As a real storybook underdog, Mine That Bird ran his way into the history books as the second longest shot to ever win the Kentucky Derby.
“We had a good horse that showed up on the right day,” says a rather humble Chip Woolley. “I think he obviously was a lot better horse than people gave him credit for before the Derby and he proved that by running second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont. His win keeps getting bigger and now I have a real appreciation for the ride of Calvin Borel and how helped us enjoy one of the best days of my life.”