NEW YORK — In the days leading to the Kentucky Derby, just about everybody ignored the little gelding tucked away in his stall at Churchill Downs.
Mine That Bird, the former Canadian two-year-old champion who was a latecomer to the Derby field, had recently arrived in Louisville after a 19-hour trailer ride from New Mexico. His trainer Chip Woolley did the driving despite a broken right leg fused with a metal plate and 12 screws.
This was not big news, though, not with top three-year-olds such as I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Friesan Fire and Dunkirk receiving all the attention. A lot has changed in five weeks: Mine That Bird won the Derby by an astonishing 63/4 lengths at 50-1 odds, came up a length short of the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness and now is the 2-1 morning-line favourite for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
From longshot to people’s choice, Mine That Bird has become one of racing’s most popular racehorses, topped only by the sensational filly who won’t be running the final leg of the Triple Crown.
When Woolley led Mine That Bird, who was co-bred by Toronto’s Peter Lamantia, off a van and toward his barn at Belmont Park the other day, there were about 50 media members there to record every step.
“This is a lot different than when we arrived at Churchill Downs,” Woolley said. “Nobody even came to see me for the first week.”
Two days before Mine That Bird tries to win the 11/2-mile Belmont and make Calvin Borel the first jockey to win the Triple Crown on different horses, Woolley was asked if he ever thought he’d be in the national spotlight after a 25 years of training horses.
“It absolutely never crossed my mind,” he said Thursday. “It was a major surprise.”
Starting with the Derby.
Mine That Bird came into the race 0-for-2 at Sunland Park in New Mexico after earning the two-year-old championship in Canada, then finishing 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
A son of 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, Mine That Bird was dismissed as the 17th choice in the 19-horse Derby field. Even Tom Durkin, who called the race on national television, was late in spotting him along the rail.
“The only person more surprised than me winning the Derby seemed to be you,” Woolley told Durkin at Wednesday’s post-position draw. Durkin took the ribbing in stride, replying “There are many times I wish I’d seen that race.”