Chip Woolley (right) trained Mine That Bird during a fairytale-like run during the 2009 Triple Crown (Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire).
This year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic played out like a Hollywood script with Mucho Macho Man winning for a 50-year-old Hall of Fame jockey just out of retirement and a trainer who is a heart transplant survivor.
Hell, if I watched that script play out in a movie I’d probably turn my attention to my iPhone halfway through, snarkily commenting to my wife that this would never happen in real horse racing. Yes, I was that jerk who watched Dreamer and spent the entire movie saying, “No way that ever happens in real life!” and “I can’t believe they didn’t check this out with a real racing fan!?!”
But a big part of the beauty of racing is that the little guy can win. Just look at the Kentucky Derby. From 2003 to 2013, trainers who never had a sniff of the classics before like John Servis (2004, Smarty Jones) and Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr. (2009, Mine That Bird) celebrated under the Twin Spires. Trainers with their first Derby starters — Barclay Tagg (2003, Funny Cide), John Shirreffs (2005, Giacomo), Michael Matz (2006, Barbaro) and Rick Dutrow (Big Brown, 2008) — took home the blanket of roses. The Derby also made household names out of little-known (outside of racing) jockeys like Stewart Elliott, Mario Gutierrez and Calvin Borel.
Borel, of course, won his first Derby on Street Sense with a rail-scraping ride in 2007 and then engineered a 50.60-to-1 upset on Mine That Bird in 2009 before winning the 2010 Derby with Super Saver. But back to the Mine That Bird upset.
The film 50 to 1 – chronicling the Mine That Bird experience - is scheduled for release on March 21. The independent film was directed and produced by Jim Wilson, a racehorse owners best known as the Oscar-winning producer of Dances With Wolves, named Best Picture of 1990.
When Mine That Bird won the Derby in 2009, trainer Woolley was asked more during the week of the race about driving the gelding himself from New Mexico to Louisville with a broken leg than he was about his Derby entrant.
I thought so little of Mine That Bird that I wrote “Can't win at Sunland, don't bother shipping to Churchill” about him in a Derby analysis on Facebook for my friends. And this was a horse (Canada’s champion 2-year-old male the previous year) I had drafted in my Triple Crown Fantasy League – yes, I am an admitted horse-racing dork.
This was a gelding and a trainer that got no respect at all from fans, media, industry insiders until he streaked clear in the stretch of the Derby. Even racecaller Tom Durkin had to scramble to get his name out before he crossed the finish line.
In fact, I just looked up the chart in my 2011 Kentucky Derby media guide and Woolley’s name was misspelled “Wooley” in the chart and in the list of Kentucky Derby trainers. (Note: It has been corrected in subsequent editions.) I think we are all still surprised at the 2009 Derby outcome.
The point is you never know what can happen once the gates fly open in racing, but the one constant is there is never a great shortage of storylines. The 2009 Derby and this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic are proof of that.
I’ll be interested to check out 50 to 1, especially since it was produced by a horse racing insider also responsible for the Laffit Pincay Jr. documentary “Laffit: All About Winning”. Calvin Borel stars as himself in the movie and Skeet Ulrich handled the role of Woolley.
ULRICH TALKS ABOUT PLAYING WOOLLEY
Everyone loves a longshot, and Mine That Bird became an instant fan favorite after the Derby win. The diminutive gelding never did win again, although he finished a game second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes, but he stole our hearts on Derby day.
Horse racing is loaded with longshot success stories like Mine That Bird and plenty of other inspirational tales.
Here’s hoping Jim Wilson’s next project centers around a 50-year-old jockey and a heart transplant survivor who teamed to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
GARY STEVENS AND KATHY RITVO CELEBRATE AFTER WINNING THE BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC