They think theyknow how to win the Kentucky Derby—the sheikhs and financiers, the heirs andentrepreneurs. 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 werereminded again of what the Derby teaches best and without remorse: The racedecides, and the rest is just a foolish stab at steering fate. ¬∂ A hopelessoutsider named Mine That Bird took the 135th Derby at odds of 50--1, thesecond-longest shot to win in the history of the race. He won because 25 yearsago one cowboy saved another from getting his ass whipped in a bar fight andthey became friends. He won because a workaday Canadian horseman bought him ata yearling sale for half the cost of a Mini Cooper, paid a veterinarian toexcise his testicles and won four races before selling him for the price of anice yacht. He won because a trainer who had a broken right leg and a 1-for-32record in starts at his home track in New Mexico this season loaded him into ahorse van and drove him 1,466 miles leftfooted to race the blue bloods in theirbackyard.
This is an article from the May 11, 2009 issue
Most of all, hewon because a sweet, 42-year-old Cajun jockey, who misses his deceased mom anddad so much it makes him weep, rode Mine That Bird with breathtakingfearlessness. Under the most enervating pressure in racing, Calvin Borelallowed 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, saidlater, "I was just hoping we wouldn't be last at the end."
Then, during afurious run to the front, Borel twice pushed Mine That Bird between horse andrail when the gap seemed narrower than the animal. And at the end Borel had wonnot just his second Derby in three years (the first was in 2007, on favoriteStreet Sense, in another stunning rail ride), but also a rarefied place in hisprofession. "Someday he will be in the Hall of Fame," said retiredrider Gary Stevens. "But he's already a legend among his peers."
Mine That Bird'svictory 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 horsereturned 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 withnumerous damaging issues (from declining interest to concerns over the welfareof the horses), the Derby once again proved its restorative powers.
It was a fittingend to a Derby season that had not long ago promised one of the deepest3-year-old crops in recent history but gradually crumbled as the raceapproached. The coup de gr√¢ce came early on Derby day, when morning-linefavorite I Want Revenge was scratched with a sore left front ankle. This camejust six days after Quality Road, who probably would have been the favorite,withdrew with hoof problems before even reaching Kentucky. A sloppy track onDerby day further clouded the issue.
Attention shiftedto others with strong credentials or a compelling backstory. Louisiana Derbywinner Friesan Fire—who had both—brought trainer Larry Jones back to ChurchillDowns one year removed from losing filly Eight Belles just moments after she'dfinished second in the Derby. "If ever a horse came along at the righttime, this is it," Jones said last week. Three-time Derby winner BobBaffert returned to Kentucky after a two-year absence with Santa Anita Derbywinner Pioneerof the Nile. Prolific Todd Pletcher entered $3.7 million yearlingDunkirk and two others, attempting to end an 0--21 Derby schneid. Tom McCarthy,a 75-year-old retired Louisville high school principal, saddled Blue GrassStakes winner General Quarters.
Mine That Birdprepared 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 withgroom--exercise rider Charlie Figueroa from Sunland Park Race Track in NewMexico, 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 hislower right leg when his Big Dog Chopper motorcycle slid out on gravel in lateFebruary; he was forced to drive with the other foot. Horse, trainer and groomspent Monday night at Lone Star Park, a track outside Dallas, and finished thedrive the next day, arriving at Churchill Downs at nearly midnight on Tuesday,11 days before the Derby.
It was the end ofa journey that started on Oct. 22, 2007, 72 miles away in Lexington. Mine ThatBird, a son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, was among 566 yearlingssold at auction, bought by Canadian owner-trainer Dave Cotey for $9,500. Coteyeventually took him to Woodbine Race Track in Toronto, had him gelded, andbetween August and October 2008 the horse won four races.
After Mine ThatBird won the Grey Stakes on Oct. 5 (he would win the Sovereign Award as the top2-year-old in Canada), Woolley went to Canada to look at him with one of hisclients, Mark Allen, Blach's Roswell-based partner. Blach, 74, is an equineveterinarian, and Allen, 50, describes his vocation as owning, breeding andtraining horses, although there is more to his story. He said after the Derbythat he spent from 1995 to 2005 in Alaska working for Veco, his father's oilfield service company. Bill Allen was a central figure in the corruption trialof former senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and obtained immunity for his son andother family members in exchange for a guilty plea in 2007.
Mark Allencomfortably plays the Rogue. He and Woolley, who both wore jeans and blackcowboy hats to their first Derby, met 25 years ago when Allen was training andWoolley, a former rodeo bareback rider, was galloping horses at LaMesa Park inRaton, N. Mex. "We didn't like each other at first," says Allen."We were fixin' to probably lock horns." One night after work Allensays he got in a fight at a Raton bar called Annie Get Your Guns.
"Chip came inand helped me out," says Allen. "There were about five of them, two ofus, and we done all right. We've been friends ever since." Woolley hastrained thoroughbreds and quarter horses for 25 years.
Now he suggestedthat Allen and Blach buy Mine That Bird. The price was $400,000, and thepartners each paid half. They rushed him into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile lastOctober, and he finished last in a 12-horse field. Four months later he wassecond in his debut at Sunland. On March 29 he was fourth in the $800,000Sunland Derby, but had accumulated enough graded earnings—if not street cred—tomerit Derby consideration and phone calls from Churchill Downs reminding thehorse's connections of their position. They were pointing to the Derby allright: The May 9 Lone Star Derby in Texas. "To tell you the truth, I wasscared," 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 ageon them."
They needed anexperienced jockey. Borel had based his 3-year-old plans around a horse namedBeethoven, but he went out with an injury in late March. Woolley reached out toBorel's longtime agent, Jerry Hissam, in mid-April. Borel and his fiancée, LisaFunk, cued up Internet replays of Mine That Bird's races. "Calvin likedhim," says Funk. "He thought maybe the horse was a little too forwardlyplaced in the Sunland Derby, and he might like to wait a littlelonger."
But Borel hadother issues for Derby week. He is the regular rider on sublime 3-year-oldfilly Rachel Alexandra, who on the day before the Derby won the Kentucky Oaksby a staggering 20¼ lengths. Even after the Derby, Funk said, "Obviouslythe focus of the weekend for Calvin was on Rachel Alexandra. There was a lot ofpressure to win that race. There was no pressure in the Derby."
In the Derby, thesmallish Mine That Bird was squeezed coming out of the gate. "Once thathappened, 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 threequarters, as rabbits Join in the Dance and Regal Ransom dueled on the front andPioneerof the Nile and Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem challenged. (They wouldfinish second and fourth, respectively.)
What took placenext was stunning. Borel passed 18 horses in 21 explosive seconds. He shot byGeneral Quarters on the rail, swept outside past Atomic Rain, ducked inside,and just past the three-sixteenths pole squeezed through a tiny gap betweenJoin in the Dance and the rail. Mine That Bird has no stones, but Borel's arebig enough for both of them.
"Nobody goesto the wood [rail] like Calvin Borel," said Kent Desormeaux, who rode 2008Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown and finished 12th on Saturday aboard HoldMe Back. "I swear his horse almost made himself skinnier for Calvin on thatone. 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 wronggame." Once free, Mine That Bird extended his lead with every stride,winning by 6¾ lengths, the largest margin since Triple Crown winner Assault in1946.
As always, thenext big test is the May 16 Preakness, where surely there will be no dearth oftrainers eager to make Mine That Bird prove himself again. For Borel, RachelAlexandra also awaits. "She's the best horse I ever rode," says Borel,stifling any debate about the Oaks and Derby winners. Thus far RachelAlexandra's owners have said that they will not run the filly in the Preaknessor the June 6 Belmont against colts, which might save Borel a pricklydecision.
On Saturdayevening he wore a black suit as he signed autographs and posed for pictures ina second-floor lounge outside the Churchill Downs jockeys' room. Funk stoodnearby, cradling an enormous bouquet of roses. Two years ago Borel won andcalled his ailing mother, Ella, in Louisiana. She passed away last fall."She watched me today," said Borel. "I know she watched." Onthis day, everybody watched him, and everybody watched an epic ride on a horsewho had no chance to win.
Now on SI.com
For Tim Layden's analysis of the May 16 Preakness, go to SI.com/bonus