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.