LOUISVILLE, KY. - If anyone would have listened, Chip Woolley would have told them his bay gelding was a pretty nice little horse. But only a handful of people asked the trainer about Mine That Bird during Kentucky Derby week. Instead, they wanted to hear about how he drove the gelding to Churchill Downs himself, covering 1,700 miles in his horse van -- and with a broken leg to boot.
Saturday night, everyone wanted to know about his horse.
After his 21-hour journey from New Mexico, Mine That Bird took a faster, more direct route to the winner's circle in the 135th Kentucky Derby. Jockey Calvin Borel slipped him through a slim opening along the rail near the top of the stretch, and the diminutive horse gave him a stunning burst of speed to become the second-longest shot ever to win the Derby.
Mine That Bird went off at odds of 50-1, roundly ignored even in a race considered the most wide-open in years. Once he took the lead -- shooting between the rail and early pacesetter Join in the Dance -- he sprinted away to win by 6¾ lengths. Mine That Bird covered the 1¼ miles in 2 minutes, 2.66 seconds, with Pioneerof The Nile second and Musket Man third.
The more astounding numbers came up on the tote board. A disbelieving crowd of 153,563 gasped as Mine That Bird paid $103.20 to win. A $2 exacta returned $2,074.80, and a $2 trifecta a mind-boggling $41,500.60.
"They'll know me now, won't they?'' Woolley said. "It's wonderful. This is a feeling like I've never had before.
"I didn't have any real feeling we could win. But I knew we'd be more competitive than people gave us credit for. Now, maybe somebody will talk about something other than our trip here."
Once they got over their speechlessness, most wanted to talk about another trip: the masterful ride by Borel. Mine That Bird was squeezed between horses at the start of the race, and the little horse was pushed back hard. Borel kept him cool and guided him to the rail, behind everyone else in the 19-horse field.
Join in the Dance and Regal Ransom set the pace over the first three-fourths of a mile, with Papa Clem and Pioneerof The Nile just behind. Mine That Bird was so far out of it that he couldn't even be seen in the video picture for most of the race. With three-eighths of a mile to go, Borel felt the horsepower rumbling underneath him and asked his horse to go.
They accelerated along the rail, veered out to pass Atomic Rain, then darted back inside and squeezed between the fence and a tiring Join in the Dance. With his horse leaving the others in his mud-splattered wake, Borel pointed at his fianceé in the crowd as he approached the finish.
"When I asked him, he kept getting closer,'' said Borel, who won the 2007 Derby aboard Street Sense. "And then I thought, 'God, he's going to get there!' You've got to ride them to win, and that's what I do best.''
Pioneerof The Nile finished a nose in front of Musket Man and was the only one of the highly touted horses to finish well. Favorite Friesan Fire was bumped hard out of the gate, tore a chunk out of his left front foot and ran next to last. Dunkirk stumbled at the start and was 11th.
I Want Revenge never made it to the starting gate: He became the first morning-line favorite to be scratched on Derby day when his trainer discovered heat and swelling in an ankle Saturday morning.
Though the predicted rain never materialized, the track remained sloppy all day under cloudy skies and heavy humidity. Woolley, who broke his leg in a motorcycle accident two months ago, navigated through the mud on crutches.
He had won only one race all year, and Mine That Bird had run second and fourth in New Mexico in his two starts this season. That made him a non-entity and Woolley a novelty story, with his black cowboy hat and his offbeat tale about driving his own horse to the nation's biggest race.
Saturday, Mine That Bird gave him another story to tell.
"I'm just tickled to death,'' Woolley said. "[The horse] proved himself today. I'm proud of him. He laid it on the line for me, and that's all I can ask for."