Derby Wrapup: Bird to Take Wing
By Steve Haskin - May 8, 2009 BLOODHORSE
Calvin Borel would have made a great captain of the starship
Enterprise, because time and again he boldly goes where no man has
gone before. What he is able to do at Churchill Downs is
mind-boggling. On Derby Day, the firmer rail was beckoning, but only
Borel heeded the call. What was most amazing was how quickly Mine That
Bird kicked in the afterburners when Borel engaged warp speed at about
the three-eighths pole. When he spotted a small opening between Join
in the Dance and the rail, he steered the runaway Mine That Bird to
his favorite spot on the track. Mine That Bird was moving so fast at
that point, had the hole closed up he likely would have still won by
the same margin, only on the grass course.
So, what in the world (or galaxy) got into Mine That Bird to make the
50-1 shot appear to be in fast forward while 18 top-class 3-year-olds
were in either normal or reverse? How does a horse’s career high Beyer
figure jump 24 points in the Kentucky Derby and his BrisNet figure 20
points? How does a horse come home his final half in :47 1/5 and last
quarter in :23 1/5 (pretty much the same as Secretariat’s record final
quarter) over a sloppy track? Galloping out, he was throwing his ears
around as if he were ready to go around again.
Was it the 3,400-foot difference in altitude coming from New Mexico to
Kentucky? In Wikipedia’s synopsis on high-altitude training it says it
“increases the mass of red blood cells and hemoglobin, and
non-hematolological responses. Proponents claim that when such
athletes travel to competitions at lower altitudes they will still
have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10-14 days, and
this gives them a competitive advantage.”
Or was it nothing more than a change of tactics and racing on the
firmer rail? Did everyone else run far below their best? Did he relish
the sloppy sealed track? The last could be the case, but remember, his
sire Birdstone detested a sealed track to such a degree that Nick Zito
was all prepared to scratch him from the Belmont Stakes after hearing
the forecast of rain, and also from the Travers. Birdstone never
picked his feet up on a sealed track in the Lane’s End Stakes at
Turfway as the 3-5 favorite and threw a shoe on a sloppy sealed track
in the Derby, finishing eighth.
Perhaps it was a combination of things that came together to work in
his favor. The other possible explanation that this was the greatest
breakout performance in Kentucky Derby history will be either
confirmed or shot down in the Preakness Stakes.
If I am allowed one small piece of self-indulgence, I did write in
last Thursday’s column for whatever it’s worth: “Although no one was
paying attention, Mine That Bird, who likely will be either the
longest or second longest priced horse in the field, actually turned
in a smooth, strong gallop this morning, which caught the eye. There
is nothing striking about him physically; he's just a smallish colt in
a plain brown wrapper, but he does move well.”
To expand on that, when a horse gallops two miles and moves at the
clip he was going, and with that kind of efficiency, it is worth
taking notice (could his strong gallops reflect the altitude change?).
Unfortunately, that was as far as I took it. There was nothing to
indicate it should be taken any farther, unless you specifically were
looking for a 50-1 shot on which to take a stab and were willing to
ignore his last three races and go back to his races at Woodbine. It
is worth noting he is the only horse ever to win his first career
start on dirt in the Kentucky Derby.
Perhaps the wildest statistic in this year’s dizzy Derby is that the
winning trainer, Chip Woolley, has only two victories all year – a
two-furlong maiden win at Sunland Park and the Kentucky Derby.
And how about Borel, not only winning the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and
Kentucky Derby (gr. I), but winning them by a combined 27 lengths.
Somewhere, there is a reason for Mine That Bird’s awesome and
befuddling performance, and as mentioned before, perhaps we’ll find it
at the Preakness. That’s where we should discover whether he is a true
or fleeting star. Another impressive victory and just like that he
becomes a legitimate Triple Crown threat, despite his 5.40 dosage
index (remember when people swore by dosage?). Here is a Kentucky
Derby winner who was sired by a Belmont Stakes and Travers winner
(Birdstone ) who was sired by a Kentucky Derby winner (Grindstone )
who was sired by a Kentucky Derby winner (Unbridled). And his
broodmare sire is the sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic and Preakness
winner Curlin and Breeders’ Cup Turf winner English Channel . So,
there is no doubt this horse will stay as far as he needs to run.
One interested observer at Churchill Downs on Derby Day was Dick
Mandella, who trained Mine That Bird for 10 days leading up to last
year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile following the gelding’s purchase for
$400,000. Mandella had been in Lexington looking at babies and came to
Churchill for the Derby. When he saw Mine That Bird walk up the track
he couldn’t believe how much he had changed. “He looked like a
different horse,” he said.
Mandella said a group of his owners pooled in together and paid his
expense to the Kentucky Derby “hoping osmosis would set in and he
would soak it all up and get something good out it.”
At least Mandella can now say he’s had his hands on a Kentucky Derby
winner. Mandella actually had particular rooting interest in Regal
Ransom, who he and Diamond A Farm had sold to Darley. As he was
watching Regal Ransom still in contention in the stretch, he noticed a
darting figure inside him and asked, “Geez, who’s that horse who just
got through on the inside?” It wasn’t until 100 yards from the wire
that he realized it was his former horse Mine That Bird.
“I was hoping nobody knew that I saddled him to finish last in the
Breeders’ Cup,” Mandella said. “For a couple of days it was pretty
quiet around here, but today I’m hearing a lot of crap flying around.
“But seriously, that horse looked fabulous. The trainer has done a
great job with him. Just because a trainer doesn’t have a big stable
doesn’t mean he’s not a good horseman. This goes to show what someone
who has a lot of time to spend with one horse can do when that horse
has talent. That’s the beauty of this game. Everybody’s got a chance.
We don’t promote enough how equal and how fair this game can be. It
has very little prejudice. This is the only business where a sheikh or
member of a royal family will lean down to some minimum wage hotwalker
or groom and say, ‘What do you think?’
After watching the Derby several times and trying to make some sense
of sanity out of it, the feeling here is that the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile and the two Sunland races were the aberrations and that Mine
That Bird will be heading to Belmont Park trying to become racing's
12th Triple Crown winner. And he could very well do it. His Derby
victory was just too incredible to think this isn't a legitimate
top-class horse. I have always maintained that the next Triple Crown
winner would be a horse who was either a champion or near-champion at
2. I just wasn't thinking in terms of Canada. But the fact is, he was
a champion and multiple stakes winner, he has the pedigree, and a
tremendous turn of foot that he can sustain. So, why not? The
Preakness will determine whether the Derby was mostly about the high
altitude angle. If it wasn't then the sky's the limit for this
gelding. Whether the racing gods agree is something we'll just have to
wait to find out. Maybe they decreed in 2004 that Birdstone would stop
Smarty Jones' Triple Crown attempt just so his son could accomplish
the feat five years later.
More afterthoughts from Derby 135:
-- Let’s not forget the gutsy performance of Pioneerof the Nile, who
looked like he was going to finish fourth at one point nearing the
eighth pole. Although he had no response for the rocket flying by him
on his inside, he dug in and turned back the challenges of Musket Man
and Papa Clem to hold on for second, confirming once again what a
fighter he is. He actually came out and bumped Papa Clem, another
game, tenacious battler, which could very well have cost Papa Clem
second or third.
-- Kudos to David Lanzman and Jeff Mullins for showing up in the
paddock before the Derby, despite the pain they were feeling. They
accepted condolences graciously and never once felt sorry for
themselves. You could feel the emotion bottled up inside Lanzman as he
held the large green and white I Want Revenge sign – his last
remaining link to the Kentucky Derby.
-- One question that keeps popping up is why did the track remain
sealed when Churchill Downs is known for drying out quickly after
being opened up and harrowed? And why did the track open for training
when it could have been sealed early, preventing water from getting
Track superintendent Butch Lehr explained: “We were right on the edge
of the front, and it wasn’t until I opened the track in the morning
and let the horses train on it for two hours that we realized there
was a good chance we weren’t going to get any more rain. A lot of the
Derby horses had never seen mud and I wanted to let them jog over it
and get a feel for it rather than have them experience it for the
first time in the Derby. If I had to do it again I might not have
opened up the track in the morning, but we weren’t sure what the
weather was going to do and I was just thinking of the guys whose
horses had never been exposed to it before.
“With the water that got down into the track during training hours, if
I had opened it too soon in the afternoon it would have made the track
real heavy. I didn’t want to keep harrowing the track in that
condition. It was better to keep it sealed and have the track more
wet-fast than deep. I was going to open it but I just ran out of time,
and we didn’t have the sun and wind we had on Oaks day to help dry it
out. It was just one of those situations where the weather didn’t
Even Bob Baffert commented before the Derby that the track would have
been worse had it been opened and harrowed.
-- That was a pretty odd move Kent Desormeaux made on the late-running
Hold Me Back, going from 12th to 4th in about a sixteenth of a mile
leaving the five-eighths pole; and the colt was being pushed along to
do it. It was obvious that by the three-eighths pole, with the colt
still being scrubbed along, that he was going nowhere.
-- How about this double for the Graded Stakes Committee: make the
Arkansas Derby a grade I race already (see Papa Clem’s performance)
and the Sunland Park Derby a graded race, so the track doesn’t have to
put up an $800,000 purse in order to get a halfway decent field. If
Mine That Bird and Big Drama run one-two in the Preakness, you’ll have
the first two finishers having run in the Sunland Derby and the Delta
Jackpot (gr. III) at Delta Downs. Yep, times have changed.
See you in Baltimore.