Mine That Bird enjoying the easy life
It's rare that a life's odyssey ends where it started.
But that is what has happened with the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner who rode from nowhere into the nation's hearts. Only two years after riding out of New Mexico to win as a 50-1 shot, Mine That Bird is living back in the heat and brush of Roswell.
Some Derby champions retire to breeding career at picturesque farms of rolling hills and Kentucky bluegrass. Mine That Bird, a gelding, is on a ranch, enjoying the quietest retirement for a Derby champion this side of . . . well, let's just say it is very quiet.
"He's enjoying it," said Leonard "Doc" Blach, an equine veterinarian and breeder and one of Mine That Bird's owners. “We don't do anything with him other than walk him. He's got a paddock of his own — a large paddock. There's a big sand pit where he can roll in the sand when he wants to.
"He’s just really enjoying retirement."
The dust and dry air of the Double Eagle Training Center is about as far from Lexington, Ky., as it gets in the racing world, but so is Sunland Park, in a corner of New Mexico just across the Texas border from El Paso. That racetrack was Mine That Bird's base before he won the Derby.
"Every week. we have people come see him," Blach said. "He likes the attention, and he knows when he gets his picture taken."
Mine That Bird has a Facebook page, with 4,931 fans. On it is a video of him rolling a large ball around his dusty paddock, with comments ranging from "Love you bird" to "Miss you little birdie." And he will be the subject of a movie, which publicists and a web site say is in pre-production for an April 2012 release.
Blach said he just sent a signed contract to Jim Wilson, who will direct and produce the movie. Among the items on Wilson’s resume: He produced "Dances with Wolves."
"This movie was never our idea," Blach said. "There was a group in Santa Fe who came to us and started talking about it. Mark (Allen) and I had no idea about doing any kind of movie. It sounded like a pipe dream, really."
But not as big a pipe dream as the Derby.
Allen and Blach paid $400,000 to buy Mine That Bird as a gelding because they wanted a racehorse, not a stud horse. Bird had grown into Canada’s 2-year-old champion after being sold at auction for $9,500.
Then trainer Chip Woolley drove Mine That Bird the 1,300 miles to Louisville in a trailer hitched to his pickup, and he drove with an ankle still healing from a motorcycle accident that shattered a dozen bones. Woolley cowboyed himself around Churchill Downs, his black cowboy hat and sunglasses always present.
Friesan Fire was the favorite on Derby day. Mine That Bird? Barely an afterthought.
"We knew he was a long shot, for sure," Blach said. "We hoped he'd run up in the pack someplace and we'd be proud of where he ran.
"My philosophy always was if I put a horse in a race, I put him in there because I had some idea he could win. But that probably wasn’t the case in the Kentucky Derby."
Blach and Allen entered him because they were invited. Twice.
"The first time, we turned it down because we were more or less shocked we had a horse at the Kentucky Derby," Blach said. "The second time, folks told us, 'Boys, you better come. You might not get the chance again.' "
Mine That Bird came from past New Mexico to win. He was dead last early in the race but was ridden brilliantly around the final turn by Calvin Borel, who brought the horse through the tiniest opening on the rail to accelerate down the stretch.
It was such a shock it took several seconds for track announcer Tom Durkin to even state his name.
"It was nothing but a miracle that it happened," Blach said.
The story quickly took on legend, as America's love of the underdog and the racehorse were unbridled. Woolley, a former bareback rodeo rider, chuckles at some of the tales as he looks back — especially the one about him driving to Louisville.
"It was a good story, so there was a lot made of it that probably didn’t amount to much," he said. "People transport horses all the time. It’s not like it was something that's never done.
"He was just such a long shot it made it a lot bigger story, I guess."
Mine That Bird came within a whisker of his second dash from last in the Preakness, but lost by a length to Rachel Alexandra — ridden by Borel, who shockingly switched to ride the filly rather than the gelding. Bird also ran a thrilling Belmont but finished third. He did not win again.
"He did really well in the Triple Crowns, and that’s a gruesome road to go, as you know," Blach said. "I think perhaps, looking back, we probably should have rested him a little bit and then come back as a 4-year-old."
Still, the legend was born.
"I get emails almost weekly from people all over," Blach said, "just asking: 'How's the Bird doing?' "