Little Horse that Could
Mine That Bird brings underdog popularity to challenged industry
- by Leslie Deckard - Business Lexington Features
Lexington, KY - Since winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and finishing
a close second to super filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes
(gr. I), Mine That Bird has become a household name from Lexington to
New York to Los Angeles, and in the process is helping to generate a
renewed interest in the sport of horse racing.
Jockey Calvin Borel (who was aboard Mine That Bird in the Derby and
Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness) was a guest on the Tonight Show
with Jay Leno May 12. Sports Illustrated put the gutsy gelding on its
May 10 cover. The overnight television ratings for the Preakness
Stakes were the highest since 2004 and were the second highest ratings
in almost two decades, according to published reports.
The story of the little horse that could is breathing new life into
the sport, which has some very serious challenges in front of it. And
what is good for horse racing is essentially good for Central
"The positives of it (Mine That Bird's Derby win) are that it
demonstrates a good horse can come from anywhere," said Nick
Nicholson, Keeneland president and chief executive officer. "The
intellectual challenge of this game from the very beginning has always
been, 'My horse can beat your horse.' Kings or icons of the industry
have tried over hundreds of years to corner the market on quality
Thoroughbreds and have never been able to. That's part of the charm of
the game, part of the intellectual challenge of the game that keeps it
fresh and keeps generating these types of stories year after year."
With the types of challenges racing is up against at the moment —
everything from competing with casinos for gambling dollars to one of
the largest racetrack ownership corporations, Magna Entertainment,
which owns Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita Race Track in
California among others, facing bankruptcy, and a lack of new owners
entering the sport — racing needs a new hero.
Discussing current troubles within the industry, Nicholson cited past
problems at the New York Racing Association, which owns Aqueduct,
Belmont, and Saratoga, the failing of Magna Entertainment, and the
uncertainty of the racing circuit in California, with the possible
closing of Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, as hurdles the industry must
"We also have other challenges: racing attendance, which you wouldn't
know by looking at Keeneland, but attendance at racetracks is not
going in the direction (nationally) by and large that we would like
it," Nicholson said.
Nicholson said while most of the concerns he cited were on the
national level, Kentucky is not shielded from the problems. He cited
other states' attempts — through increased purses and lucrative
breeders' incentive programs due to revenue from expanded gaming — to
take horses out of Kentucky for racing and breeding as a real threat
to the state's signature industry.
"It's a very real threat, and it's a shame because the failure here is
not on the product, like so many other aspects of the economic crisis
that we are in, (where the trouble originates) with core problems of
the product," Nicholson said.
Nicholson said 19 of the 20 horses that started in this year's
Kentucky Derby were bred in the state.
"From a product production standpoint, the Kentucky Thoroughbred
industry is as strong or stronger than it's ever been," he said. "The
people that work here know what they are doing, in my opinion, better
than any other place in the country."
Mine That Bird (Birdstone-Mining My Own, by Smart Strike) is a
Kentucky product. Birdstone stands at the Beck family's Gainesway Farm
and Mining My Own is owned by Phil and Judy Needham of Needham
Thoroughbreds and Bena Hakecky. Both Birdstone and Mining My Own
reside near Lexington.
Mine That Bird was purchased for $9,500 at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton
Kentucky Fall yearling sale by Dominion Bloodstock from the
consignment of Highclere Sales, agent. His current New Mexico-based
ownership, Mark Allen's Double Eagle Ranch and Dr. Leonard Blach's
Buena Suerte Equine, purchased him for $400,000 after he earned
2-year-old championship honors in Canada.
Nicholson said the modest price paid for Mine That Bird as a yearling
could encourage new owners to become involved in the sport, but he
doesn't want people to enter the business with false hope.
"I think there are a lot of people in the country that can afford to
spend $9,500, but at the same time, we don't want to oversell that,"
Nicholson said. "The $9,500 is just the beginning. There are training
bills, vet bills, feed bills, and all the other bills that you have to
go with it."
The story of Mine That Bird is not yet complete. His owners are
considering a run in the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont
Stakes (gr. I) June 6 at Belmont Park.
Asked what effect he believed Mine That Bird will have on the
industry, Nicholson said, "As for what it means to the industry in
dollars and cents, it's certainly hard to quantify, but it's nice."