By Tim Layden
May 05, 2009

Unlikely Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is on the cover of SI this week. He's the first horse on the cover since Smarty Jones after winning the Derby in '04. (Although to be fair, this week's photo has to be considered as much homage to fearless jockey Calvin Borel as to the 50-1 gelding he's riding.)

I wrote the piece that goes with the cover. If you had told me five minutes before the starting gate opened that I would be writing about Mine That Bird, I would have convulsed in laughter. Or vomited. (Keep reading). Horse racing fell off the mainstream sports radar a long time ago (along with boxing, track and field, hockey and pretty much everything but the NFL, college football and the NCAA tournament). But I have written about racing occasionally for 30 years and I cover the Triple Crown for SI every year. It's a unique experience, unlike any other of my other beat obligations.

Here's what I mean:

Tuesday, April 21

There are almost 20 horses in a Kentucky Derby. That's the maximum allowed. And in most years there are enough greedy, self-indulgent owners to ensure that the starting gate will be filled. The race lasts two minutes. In reporting a weekly magazine story for SI, my job is to make sure that I'm prepared to write about any of the 20 horses -- or at least those with any reasonable chance of winning -- and that I am prepared before the race.

This involves getting on the phone, heading out to the barns at Churchill Downs or wherever horses might be stabled. It also involves filling up digital audio files with material, the majority of which won't see print. (The other part of my job is to also write pieces for, which provides a healthy outlet for all this over-reporting.)

The Churchill backstretch (barn area) gets mighty crowded with media and fans (yup, fans; Churchill on Derby week is the only place I work where I can finish interviewing a horse trainer and a lawyer from Paducah can step right in and do the next interview). Some years I try to hit a few of the Derby prep races to do background work (and write about those races, as well), but this year I covered the NCAA basketball tournament, straight through the Final Four, and by that time the Derby preps were nearly all finished.

(One more piece of information. The reason so much backgrounding is necessary in horse racing is because, well, the horse doesn't talk. I can't pull Big Brown off to the side after the race and get a pithy quote. But the owners, trainers and jockeys in this sport have epic tales to tell, and you have to go find them in advance. Usually. Keep reading).

So I'm in Kentucky on the morning of April 21, basically getting started. Not entirely at square one, because I know many of the principals, and through the miracle of Internet video, I've seen most of the key prep races. But there are gaping holes to fill. So for a couple days I shuttle back and forth between Louisville and Lexington (also making one stop for an upcoming NFL story) interviewing trainers. Some of them I know well, others not so much. Every Triple Crown season brings new faces.

I knock off Jeff Mullins, the Californian who trains likely favorite I Want Revenge; Tom McCarthy, the 75-year-old former school principal who is a feel-good story; and J. Larry Jones, who lost filly Eight Belles right after the finish of last year's race and is retiring at the end of the year.

Wednesday, April 29

Back at Churchill Downs, walking the barns in the dark. (That's morning dark, not nighttime dark; horse trainers start early). I visit with Bob Baffert, who I have talked to many times. Baffert is a big Bode Miller fan and three years ago I helped get Baffert's people together with Bode's people and now they're friends. Baffert and his wife, Jill, named their son Bode. He's four now and Jill makes him shake hands with me and I make sure he grips hard. My Dad always told me: Grip hard.

After the post position draw, I talk with 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo, one of the stars of the Animal Planet reality series Jockeys. Talamo rides I Want Revenge and has immense confidence in himself and the horse.

Thursday, April 30

Gradually working my way through the field. Todd Pletcher (three starters, including the estimable Dunkirk, who I will foolishly pick to win the race), Saeed bin Suroor (trainer for Sheikh Mohammed bid Rashid el Maktoum of Dubai's Godolphin racing; Sheikh Mo desperately wants to win the Derby), Jerry Hollendorfer (who trains wiseguy horse Chocolate Candy), latecomer Nick Zito (with Nowhere To Hide, a name that will prove appropriate). I keep a checklist in the front of my old-school notebook, crossing off horses that I'm now comfortable with winning the race.

Longtime SI writer Bill Nack, arguably the best racing writer in modern history, used to identify at least one horse in the field as a "Twin Spires Horse," meaning if that horse won the Derby, he would throw himself off the twin spires because he had nothing in the notebook on him.

Several times I walk past Mine That Bird's barn enroute to someplace more important. I need to talk to Eoin Harty about his horse, Mr. Hot Stuff, and also about his years training for Sheikh Mo, who I suspect is finally going to win the race. At the suggestion of my friend Tom Luicci of the Newark Star-Ledger, who knows more about horses than I do, I visit with Derek Ryan, who trains Musket Man. Ryan is a hoot and Musket Man will eventually finish third.

Still, I haven't had the time to stop by Mine That Bird's barn. Several times I see trainer Chip Woolley in his black cowboy hat, and several times I make a note to see him later.

Friday, May 1

Oaks Day at Churchill Downs, hence the barns get empty early. I do a quick tour of the usuals: Mullins, Baffert, Jones (who gets uncharacteristically testy when asked for the 1,236th time about running Friesan Fire in the Derby off seven weeks' rest).

It's about 9:30 a.m. This was almost exactly the time on a Friday morning five years earlier when I traipsed across the barn area and did a perfunctory, just-in-case interview with retired music impresario Jerry Moss (still he coolest man in racing) about his horse, Giacomo. A day later Giacomo won the Kentucky Derby at 49-1 odds and I was eternally thankful for my detour.

But there were a couple horses in that field I had nothing on. On this day I have to walk a mile and a half back to my hotel, change clothes and walk back to the track. I have notes to transcribe. I look at my chicken scratching: I can identify two Twin Spires horses, about whom I have done zero reporting -- Flying Private and Mine That Bird. As I walk back past Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, I look at the racing records. I'm safe. Neither of these dogs is winning the Kentucky Derby.

At 6:15 on Friday evening, the splendid filly, Rachel Alexandra, wins the Kentucky Oaks by a ridiculous 20 ¼ lengths. Her rider is Borel, the loveable Cajun who won the Derby two years ago on Street Sense and is a legend among riders for his gutsy, rail-skipping style, especially at Churchill Downs. I look to see who Borel is riding in the Derby.

Mine That Bird. Hmmmmmmm.

Saturday, May 2. Derby Day

It's raining when I get up to work out at 7:30. But stops by the time I eat breakfast at 9:15. It's cool, but humid. I'm thinking: The track might not get dry. And it doesn't. That can mess with racing form in a big way.

5:15 p.m.

After a long day of waiting, I walk around the Downs to the backstretch to make the ceremonial walk to the paddock with the Derby horses. The barns are buzzing with activity, as always on this day. A public address announcement summons the trainers to bring their horses to the track for the walk over to the paddock.

As I'm walking to find Jones and Friesan Fire, I am passed by the Mine That Bird crew. They are wearing their black hats and string ties and it looks like they're headed to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, not the Kentucky Derby. Poor bastards, I'm thinking.

I walk over to the paddock with Jones and his crew. The mud is soupy and three inches think, which is why I'm wearing $19 shoes from an outlet store that I can throw away Sunday morning.

6:28:00 p.m.

The gate opens and 153,563 fans roar. Great moment. Never fails, every year.

6:28:15 p.m.

I am standing along the rail, 100 yards short of the finish line, with Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pat Forde of and Jody Demling of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The field thunders past the finish line. Mine That Bird is at least five lengths behind the second-to-last place horse, hopelessly beaten already.

6:29:40 p.m.

The field has turned for home. Ground level is a lousy vantage point (but you need to be down there to get interviews after the race), so we are watching on the big screen posted on the infield. Baffert's Pioneerof The Nile is leading and digging in. Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem is making a run. Somebody -- I think it's Forde -- yells "On the inside!'' (Forde e-mailed me Tuesday night -- it wasn't him who spotted the horse on the inside, it was Demling.) Just as he says it, a muddy brown bullet shoots into the clear on the inside and suddenly opens up daylight.

The leader flashes past me and I see the name on the pink saddle cloth. MINE THAT BIRD. Me: "Expletive! Gerund expletive followed by the letter 'A!'' Calvin Borel. Then we all start laughing. Shock turns to hilarity. Fifty-to-one shot. Those guys in the black hats. Awesome.

6:40 p.m.

By now I'm on the infield, having chased down some beaten trainers and jocks with other writers. I see Steve Haskin, the respected writer for the Blood-Horse magazine. I shrug my shoulders. He says, "I've got nothing.''

Some people thought it was remarkable the gelding Funny Cide won the Derby in 2003. Funny Cide had finished a close second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial. Some people thought it was remarkable that Giacomo won the Derby in '05. Giacomo was a close fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. Mine That Bird was fourth in the Sunland Derby in New Mexico. Fourth! In New Mexico! His best Beyer Speed Figure was an 81, which is plodding. It's a joke that after the Derby you can look at the winner's racing stats and realize that he was, indeed, good enough to win. You slap yourself on the forehead with the heel of your hand. Not this time. No slapping.

7:00 p.m.

The NBC telecast and formal trophy presentations break up. Reporters -- me included -- scramble to learn the Mine That Bird Story. Some things are known: His racing record, his long odds, Borel's record at Churchill, the fact the Woolley is on crutches after breaking his leg in a motorcycle crash in March. The rest is mystery. The first guy I grab wearing a black hat is only connected to the horse because his nephew is a part-owner. The next black hat is a farm manager for one of the owners. Zero for two.

9:15 p.m.

Two furious hours later the notebook is full. Bouncing back and forth from the post-race party in the Kentucky Derby museum to the jockeys' lounge on the second floor over the paddock, the story of Mine That Bird and his unreal victory takes shape. And it is a stunning tale, recounted in this week's issue of SI. No doubt we will learn more in the coming weeks.


I have watched Borel's ride on Mine That Bird probably 50 times since the race. Initially, I was amazed at the two holes into which he put himself and his horse, particularly the tiny spot inside Join in the Dance and jockey Chris DeCarlo leaving the eighth pole. In my SI story, you can read what a couple of Borel's fellow jocks said about that move.

Having absorbed that part of the win, I have become transfixed at how fast Mine That Bird was moving in the last three furlongs of the race.

Consider: The leaders went through the half-mile in an honest, but not blazing, 47.23 seconds. By my watch, Borel was at least 51 seconds when he hit the half mile, a walking pace. Once he accelerated -- and never really got stopped --- Borel covered the distance from the quarter pole to the eighth pole (the middle of the homestretch) in less than 12 seconds, and the last eighth of a mile, which standing up and celebrating (Usain Bolt on horseback) in just over 12 seconds. His last quarter-mile was, again by my watch, 24.22 seconds, which is extraordinarily fast for the end of a 1 ¼-mile race. And especially so for a horse that had tired badly running a shorter distance in his previous race.

Credit Borel for nursing him along and never letting him stop once Mine That Bird got rolling. But still... amazing.

In retrospect, and I point this out in my SI story, the Derby field had suffered mightily from the defections of Quality Road and I Want Revenge, who might have been the first and second betting choices.

So, can Mine That Bird win the Preakness? Sure. The field is not thus far coming up exactly like the Breeders Cup Classic. As has often happened in recent years, horses beaten up by the Derby are choosing to skip Baltimore. Nobody can say with any certainty whether Mine That Bird will ever again duplicate his Derby form, but he might not have to in the Preakness.

I'll say one thing: If he wins the Preakness, I'll be ready for him.

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