One reaction to Mine That Bird's Derby win? Complete shock
The author picked Dunkirk to win, but was prepared to write about most others
As reporters at trackside realized who had won, shock was followed by laughter
It's questionable if Mine That Bird can win Preakness, but the media will be ready
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 SI.com, 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.