They think they know how to win the Kentucky Derby -- the sheikhs and financiers, the heirs and entrepreneurs. They think they know the path to the place where the roses lie. And then last Saturday, on a gray, damp afternoon at Churchill Downs, they were reminded again of what the Derby teaches best and without remorse: The race decides, and the rest is just a foolish stab at steering fate.
A hopeless outsider named Mine That Bird took the 135th Derby at odds of 50-1, the second-longest shot to win in the history of the race. He won because 25 years ago one cowboy saved another from getting his ass whipped in a bar fight and they became friends. He won because a workaday Canadian horseman bought him at a yearling sale for half the cost of a Mini Cooper, paid a veterinarian to excise his testicles and won four races before selling him for the price of a nice yacht. He won because a trainer who had a broken right leg and a 1-for-32 record in starts at his home track in New Mexico this season loaded him into a horse van and drove him 1,466 miles leftfooted to race the blue bloods in their backyard.
Most of all, he won because a sweet, 42-year-old Cajun jockey, who misses his deceased mom and dad so much it makes him weep, rode Mine That Bird with breathtaking fearlessness. Under the most enervating pressure in racing, Calvin Borel allowed his horse to drop from the gate to last place in the 19-horse field, nearly 30 lengths behind, so far back that his co-owner, Leonard Blach, said later, "I was just hoping we wouldn't be last at the end."
Then, during a furious run to the front, Borel twice pushed Mine That Bird between horse and rail when the gap seemed narrower than the animal. And at the end Borel had won not just his second Derby in three years (the first was in 2007, on favorite Street Sense, in another stunning rail ride), but also a rarefied place in his profession. "Someday he will be in the Hall of Fame," said retired rider Gary Stevens. "But he's already a legend among his peers."
Mine That Bird's victory left Churchill's customary Derby throng of 153,563 in a stunned buzz. He paid $103.20 to win; not since Donerail ($184.90) in 1913 had a horse returned more. He became just the second gelding to win the Derby since 1929 (Funny Cide was the first, six years ago), and while the sport grapples with numerous damaging issues (from declining interest to concerns over the welfare of the horses), the Derby once again proved its restorative powers.
It was a fitting end to a Derby season that had not long ago promised one of the deepest 3-year-old crops in recent history but gradually crumbled as the race approached. The coup de grâce came early on Derby day, when morning-line favorite I Want Revenge was scratched with a sore left front ankle. This came just six days after Quality Road, who probably would have been the favorite, withdrew with hoof problems before even reaching Kentucky. A sloppy track on Derby day further clouded the issue.
Attention shifted to others with strong credentials or a compelling backstory. Louisiana Derby winner Friesan Fire -- who had both -- brought trainer Larry Jones back to Churchill Downs one year removed from losing filly Eight Belles just moments after she'd finished second in the Derby. "If ever a horse came along at the right time, this is it," Jones said last week. Three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert returned to Kentucky after a two-year absence with Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile. Prolific Todd Pletcher entered $3.7 million yearling Dunkirk and two others, attempting to end an 0-21 Derby schneid. Tom McCarthy, a 75-year-old retired Louisville high school principal, saddled Blue Grass Stakes winner General Quarters.
Mine That Bird prepared in anonymity. Early on the morning of Monday, April 20, trainer Bennie (Chip) Woolley Jr. loaded him into a three-stall horse trailer and set out with groom-exercise rider Charlie Figueroa from Sunland Park Race Track in New Mexico, 10 miles west of El Paso. "His GPS brought him to Kentucky," says Woolley's girlfriend, Kim Carr. Woolley, 45, had broken both bones in his lower right leg when his Big Dog Chopper motorcycle slid out on gravel in late February; he was forced to drive with the other foot. Horse, trainer and groom spent Monday night at Lone Star Park, a track outside Dallas, and finished the drive the next day, arriving at Churchill Downs at nearly midnight on Tuesday, 11 days before the Derby.
It was the end of a journey that started on Oct. 22, 2007, 72 miles away in Lexington. Mine That Bird, a son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, was among 566 yearlings sold at auction, bought by Canadian owner-trainer Dave Cotey for $9,500. Cotey eventually took him to Woodbine Race Track in Toronto, had him gelded, and between August and October 2008 the horse won four races.
After Mine That Bird won the Grey Stakes on Oct. 5 (he would win the Sovereign Award as the top 2-year-old in Canada), Woolley went to Canada to look at him with one of his clients, Mark Allen, Blach's Roswell-based partner. Blach, 74, is an equine veterinarian, and Allen, 50, describes his vocation as owning, breeding and training horses, although there is more to his story. He said after the Derby that he spent from 1995 to 2005 in Alaska working for Veco, his father's oil field service company. Bill Allen was a central figure in the corruption trial of former senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and obtained immunity for his son and other family members in exchange for a guilty plea in 2007.
Mark Allen comfortably plays the Rogue. He and Woolley, who both wore jeans and black cowboy hats to their first Derby, met 25 years ago when Allen was training and Woolley, a former rodeo bareback rider, was galloping horses at LaMesa Park in Raton, N.Mex. "We didn't like each other at first," says Allen. "We were fixin' to probably lock horns." One night after work Allen says he got in a fight at a Raton bar called Annie Get Your Guns.
"Chip came in and helped me out," says Allen. "There were about five of them, two of us, and we done all right. We've been friends ever since." Woolley has trained thoroughbreds and quarter horses for 25 years.
Now he suggested that Allen and Blach buy Mine That Bird. The price was $400,000, and the partners each paid half. They rushed him into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, and he finished last in a 12-horse field. Four months later he was second in his debut at Sunland. On March 29 he was fourth in the $800,000 Sunland Derby, but had accumulated enough graded earnings -- if not street cred -- to merit Derby consideration and phone calls from Churchill Downs reminding the horse's connections of their position. They were pointing to the Derby all right: The May 9 Lone Star Derby in Texas. "To tell you the truth, I was scared," says Allen. "In the Kentucky Derby, you're running against D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert. But my partner and my dad are getting a little age on them."
They needed an experienced jockey. Borel had based his 3-year-old plans around a horse named Beethoven, but he went out with an injury in late March. Woolley reached out to Borel's longtime agent, Jerry Hissam, in mid-April. Borel and his fiancée, Lisa Funk, cued up Internet replays of Mine That Bird's races. "Calvin liked him," says Funk. "He thought maybe the horse was a little too forwardly placed in the Sunland Derby, and he might like to wait a little longer."
But Borel had other issues for Derby week. He is the regular rider on sublime 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, who on the day before the Derby won the Kentucky Oaks by a staggering 20 1/4 lengths. Even after the Derby, Funk said, "Obviously the focus of the weekend for Calvin was on Rachel Alexandra. There was a lot of pressure to win that race. There was no pressure in the Derby."
In the Derby, the smallish Mine That Bird was squeezed coming out of the gate. "Once that happened, I just put him on a loose rein and dropped back and relaxed," said Borel. He was last at the quarter mile. Last at the half. Last at three quarters, as rabbits Join in the Dance and Regal Ransom dueled on the front and Pioneerof the Nile and Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem challenged. (They would finish second and fourth, respectively.)
What took place next was stunning. Borel passed 18 horses in 21 explosive seconds. He shot by General Quarters on the rail, swept outside past Atomic Rain, ducked inside, and just past the three-sixteenths pole squeezed through a tiny gap between Join in the Dance and the rail. Mine That Bird has no stones, but Borel's are big enough for both of them.
"Nobody goes to the wood [rail] like Calvin Borel," said Kent Desormeaux, who rode 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown and finished 12th on Saturday aboard Hold Me Back. "I swear his horse almost made himself skinnier for Calvin on that one. It was one of the most patient, skilled rides ever."
Said Borel, "They always drift out when they're tired. My brother [Cecil, a trainer] always told me, inside is the shortest way around. It's not as bad as it looks. I've been thrown over the rail, but if you're afraid, you're in the wrong game." Once free, Mine That Bird extended his lead with every stride, winning by 6 3/4 lengths, the largest margin since Triple Crown winner Assault in 1946.
As always, the next big test is the May 16 Preakness, where surely there will be no dearth of trainers eager to make Mine That Bird prove himself again. For Borel, Rachel Alexandra also awaits. "She's the best horse I ever rode," says Borel, stifling any debate about the Oaks and Derby winners. Thus far Rachel Alexandra's owners have said that they will not run the filly in the Preakness or the June 6 Belmont against colts, which might save Borel a prickly decision.
On Saturday evening he wore a black suit as he signed autographs and posed for pictures in a second-floor lounge outside the Churchill Downs jockeys' room. Funk stood nearby, cradling an enormous bouquet of roses. Two years ago Borel won and called his ailing mother, Ella, in Louisiana. She passed away last fall. "She watched me today," said Borel. "I know she watched." On this day, everybody watched him, and everybody watched an epic ride on a horse who had no chance to win.