By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009
BALTIMORE -- The sun was still rising minutes before 6 a.m. Wednesday, and trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley enjoyed one of his few moments of solitude. The horse who made Woolley famous, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, rested in stall No. 40 of the Preakness Stakes Barn. Secretariat occupied the same stall, traditionally reserved for the Derby winner, 36 years ago. The famed Triple Crown champion was the horse who first drew Woolley's interest into racing's marquee series.
A 50-to-1 long shot to win the Derby, Mine That Bird catapulted Woolley into the spotlight at Pimlico. But for the few minutes before Mine That Bird's morning workout, Woolley had time to himself. He would not be preparing for Saturday's Preakness Stakes -- the second leg of racing's Triple Crown -- had the decision not been made to test Mine That Bird's chances at the Derby.
Ever since, his story has sounded like a Hollywood script. Woolley hobbles on crutches, the product of a motorcycle accident. He vanned Mine That Bird behind his Ford F-450 Lariat nearly 1,500 miles from his base in New Mexico to Churchill Downs (with a stopover in Texas to rest). After the Derby, Woolley didn't give up his driving duties, hauling his horse from Louisville to Baltimore. The former rodeo bareback rider received a police escort for the final few miles of the journey and later joked that he's used to the police chasing him, not clearing the way for him.
He wears jeans and a cowboy hat, the same attire as the rest of the Mine That Bird team. After the posting positions were announced Wednesday, co-owner Mark Allen, who rode his Harley-Davidson here from Louisville, answered questions wearing a can't-miss belt buckle that read: "135th Kentucky Derby."
Since his afterthought horse defied the odds, Woolley's phone continues to ring, often calls from other "smaller people" who dream big. The most gratifying calls, Woolley said, are the ones from his native New Mexico.
"It's been a whirlwind," Woolley said. "At first, it was a little overwhelming, and it was hard to get your head around. But now, it started to relax, and you realize you got the Derby and you get to keep it, and whatever happens, that's going to be gravy."
Although Mine That Bird has received national attention, the colt remains the Rodney Dangerfield of Kentucky Derby winners. He is not a Preakness favorite. His 6-to-1 odds are tied for third-best in the 13-horse race. And he lost jockey Calvin Borel to favorite Rachel Alexandra.
"What's really been lost in this whole thing is that Chip Woolley has not gotten any credit," said Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer of Pioneerof the Nile, who finished second to Mine That Bird at the Derby. "You don't win the Derby with a bad horse. It's a good horse. And no one is giving Chip credit. He did a good job -- and his staff -- bringing the horse in there, and it doesn't matter if he wears a cowboy hat or brings in his own horse. I used to wear a cowboy hat. I used to bring in my own horse."
Baffert pointed out that Mine That Bird was a winner in Canada before Woolley spotted him to run in the Sunland Derby. Yet when a 50-to-1 horse crosses the finish line first, horsing experts search for reasons.
"I wouldn't say a fluke," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "He beat everyone that showed up. For that, we better give him his due. But having said that, it was a strange Derby and hard to figure."
During Mine That Bird's early morning run Wednesday, Woolley leaned against a pole along the final stretch of Pimlico's 1 3/16 -mile track. Woolley marveled at his horse, whom he said has remained "smooth as silk" despite the newfound celebrity.
He asked a group of reporters watching Mine That Bird run if any of them watched "The Tonight Show" the previous night, when Borel appeared as a guest. Borel is ditching the Derby winner for the Preakness favorite, a filly. Borel has won five races aboard Rachel Alexandra.
Woolley did not make a fuss. He will miss Borel, but is confident in new jockey Mike Smith.
"It gave Mike something to go by," Woolley said of Borel's late push along the rail in the Derby. "This is the trip we've been looking for all along."
Woolley maintains Mine That Bird is the same horse that lost the Sunland Derby. The gelding simply needed a little racing luck.
"We'll see down the road," Woolley said. "I'm not saying he didn't run over his form. Hopefully, he'll fire back like that this week. If he does, that's wonderful. If he doesn't, we'll regroup and aim at the Belmont Stakes and see what happens."