Learned: Kentucky Derby
Sports Illustrated - Mark Beech > INSIDE HORSE RACING
Here are my five quick thoughts from an improbable, electrifying Kentucky Derby.
1. Who? What?
There have been plenty of long shots to win the Kentucky Derby, most
recently Giacomo at 50-1 in 2005. But Mine That Bird (who also went
off at 50-1) is one of the most obscure of them all -- certainly more
than any horse in recent memory. Sold as a yearling for the
bargain-basement price of $9,500, the colt began his racing career in
Canada, then, after a brief stop in Southern California -- where he
stayed long enough to finish dead last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile
-- he moved on to New Mexico. His home track is Sunland Park, 1,500
miles west of Churchill Downs. Mine That Bird's last start was in the
Sunland Derby, which isn't even a graded-stakes race (he finished a
He made it to Louisville on the back of a trailer pulled by his
trainer, the laconic Bennie (Chip) Woolley Jr. -- a trip that Woolley
estimates took "about 21 hours." Mine That Bird does have some class
in his bloodstream. His papa is 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, who
spoiled the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones, and his grandsire is
1996 Derby winner Grindstone. Grindstone beat the Bob Baffert-trained
Cavonnier by a nose. Mine That Bird beat Baffert's Pioneerof the Nile
by 6 3/4 widening lengths, the largest margin since Assault won by
eight in 1946.
2. Not such a longshot anymore ...
Yes, Mine That Bird ran the early part of the race in dead last and
picked off tiring horses to win the race. But it was the way he did it
that makes him look like he might be something special. The aerial
pictures provided by NBC were startling -- showing Mine That Bird
inhaling the field around the turn for home. He seemed to be picking
off horses with every stride. And even though the race seemed to have
been set up perfectly for Pioneerof the Nile in the stretch, Mine That
Bird ran by as though every other horse on the track were standing
So now we know the colt can close like a champion. But his record
suggests that he has some front-running ability, as well. His last
graded-stakes victory came in the Grade III Grey Stakes at Woodbine
last October, and in that race, he ran on or near the lead for the
entire 1 1/16 miles.
3. The Golden Rail
With the muddy track, the rail was the place to run at Churchill
Downs. The spot provided the driest, smoothest surface for running all
day, with several winners hugging it tight as they ran through the
stretch and under the wire. Mine That Bird was in the perfect
One reason for this was that his jockey was Calvin Borel, the
42-year-old Cajun, who so loves to save ground racing on the inside
that he's often referred to by other horsemen as Bo-rail. As he did
when he won the Derby on 9-2 favorite Street Sense in 2007, Borel took
his horse back and waited until the field stretched out and holes
began to open up. He's not often thought of in the first flight of
today's top riders, but with well over 4,000 victories to his credit
-- including two Derbies in the last three years -- it's clear that
Borel has earned a place among the elite. He's certainly one of the
best Derby riders of modern times.
4. Something Missing
As wonderful as this Kentucky Derby was, it lacked an element of
glamour -- fact that has nothing to do with how many celebrities were
in attendance on Millionaire's Row. The missing piece to this year's
Run for the Roses was star power. Likely favorite Quality Road had to
withdraw from the race with a quarter-crack in one of his hind hooves
earlier in the week. Morning line favorite I Want Revenge pulled out
the morning of the race with a bum ankle. But other, earlier,
defections also took away some of the luster. A whole raft of horses
who won big races last year didn't even make it to Churchill Downs,
including Breeders' Cup Juvenile champ Midshipman.
So Mine That Bird did win a big race, but he didn't beat the best of
his generation to do it. Which leaves me on the fence about how I see
his Triple-Crown prospects. On the one hand, he ran a heck of a race.
But on the other, he didn't do it against horses who have been much,
much faster than him for the last several months. Perhaps the colt is
maturing and developing at just the right time. It should be an
interesting five weeks.
5. The Best. Period.
Folks, there is no sporting event in America quite as great as the
Kentucky Derby. Nearly every other one worth mentioning is contested
by millionaire athletes who are nothing like you, me and the guy down
the street. But the Kentucky Derby brings those two worlds together.
Mine That Bird beat eight horses who sold for at least $200,000 at
auction. Two of those horses sold for more than $2 million. The crown
prince of Dubai had two horses in this race. Mine That Bird also
bested a colt who is the only horse owned and trained by a retired
Louisville high school principal, as well as one owned by diet queen
Jenny Craig. No other event in America makes a folk hero quite as
quickly as the Kentucky Derby. It's not the greatest two minutes in
sports for nothing.