Sunday May 3rd, 2009

Here are my five quick thoughts from an improbable, electrifying Kentucky Derby.

1. Who? What?

There have been plenty of long shots to win the Kentucky Derby, most recently Giacomo at 50-1 in 2005. But Mine That Bird (who also went off at 50-1) is one of the most obscure of them all -- certainly more than any horse in recent memory. Sold as a yearling for the bargain-basement price of $9,500, the colt began his racing career in Canada, then, after a brief stop in Southern California -- where he stayed long enough to finish dead last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- he moved on to New Mexico. His home track is Sunland Park, 1,500 miles west of Churchill Downs. Mine That Bird's last start was in the Sunland Derby, which isn't even a graded-stakes race (he finished a weakening fourth).

He made it to Louisville on the back of a trailer pulled by his trainer, the laconic Bennie (Chip) Woolley Jr. -- a trip that Woolley estimates took "about 21 hours." Mine That Bird does have some class in his bloodstream. His papa is 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, who spoiled the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones, and his grandsire is 1996 Derby winner Grindstone. Grindstone beat the Bob Baffert-trained Cavonnier by a nose. Mine That Bird beat Baffert's Pioneerof the Nile by 6 3/4 widening lengths, the largest margin since Assault won by eight in 1946.

2. Not such a longshot anymore ...

Yes, Mine That Bird ran the early part of the race in dead last and picked off tiring horses to win the race. But it was the way he did it that makes him look like he might be something special. The aerial pictures provided by NBC were startling -- showing Mine That Bird inhaling the field around the turn for home. He seemed to be picking off horses with every stride. And even though the race seemed to have been set up perfectly for Pioneerof the Nile in the stretch, Mine That Bird ran by as though every other horse on the track were standing still.

So now we know the colt can close like a champion. But his record suggests that he has some front-running ability, as well. His last graded-stakes victory came in the Grade III Grey Stakes at Woodbine last October, and in that race, he ran on or near the lead for the entire 1 1/16 miles.

3. The Golden Rail

With the muddy track, the rail was the place to run at Churchill Downs. The spot provided the driest, smoothest surface for running all day, with several winners hugging it tight as they ran through the stretch and under the wire. Mine That Bird was in the perfect position.

One reason for this was that his jockey was Calvin Borel, the 42-year-old Cajun, who so loves to save ground racing on the inside that he's often referred to by other horsemen as Bo-rail. As he did when he won the Derby on 9-2 favorite Street Sense in 2007, Borel took his horse back and waited until the field stretched out and holes began to open up. He's not often thought of in the first flight of today's top riders, but with well over 4,000 victories to his credit -- including two Derbies in the last three years -- it's clear that Borel has earned a place among the elite. He's certainly one of the best Derby riders of modern times.

4. Something Missing

As wonderful as this Kentucky Derby was, it lacked an element of glamour -- fact that has nothing to do with how many celebrities were in attendance on Millionaire's Row. The missing piece to this year's Run for the Roses was star power. Likely favorite Quality Road had to withdraw from the race with a quarter-crack in one of his hind hooves earlier in the week. Morning line favorite I Want Revenge pulled out the morning of the race with a bum ankle. But other, earlier, defections also took away some of the luster. A whole raft of horses who won big races last year didn't even make it to Churchill Downs, including Breeders' Cup Juvenile champ Midshipman.

So Mine That Bird did win a big race, but he didn't beat the best of his generation to do it. Which leaves me on the fence about how I see his Triple-Crown prospects. On the one hand, he ran a heck of a race. But on the other, he didn't do it against horses who have been much, much faster than him for the last several months. Perhaps the colt is maturing and developing at just the right time. It should be an interesting five weeks.

5. The Best. Period.

Folks, there is no sporting event in America quite as great as the Kentucky Derby. Nearly every other one worth mentioning is contested by millionaire athletes who are nothing like you, me and the guy down the street. But the Kentucky Derby brings those two worlds together. Mine That Bird beat eight horses who sold for at least $200,000 at auction. Two of those horses sold for more than $2 million. The crown prince of Dubai had two horses in this race. Mine That Bird also bested a colt who is the only horse owned and trained by a retired Louisville high school principal, as well as one owned by diet queen Jenny Craig. No other event in America makes a folk hero quite as quickly as the Kentucky Derby. It's not the greatest two minutes in sports for nothing.

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