Well, I guess I gave up covering the Kentucky Derby in person two years too soon. I’ve seen 57 of them, but this one just about topped them all, but perhaps one. Specifically, when Canonero II won after arriving in Louisville by way of Venezuela, and spending a week in confinement until he could be cleared by customs, that was only the beginning. He didn’t even have his own betting slot. He went off in the “field,” one of five entries that the horse authorities at Churchill Downs felt didn’t belong under their own number. Canonero II wasn’t through yet. He went on to set a new record in the Preakness, this by a thoroughbred who had been sold for $1,500.
This Derby, it is “Mine That Bird”, who makes a good story. It’s a name that makes no sense—until you realize that he was sired by Birdstone, who had won the Belmont. The headline story is that he was sold for $9,500, and at one time, he did—at a yearling sale at Sunland Park, back roads center of racing where New Mexico and Texas come together. A cowpoke and a barroom pal paid the original price, but there’s a lot of history that headline-writers chose to overlook in this gelding-without-drawing-room-connections. (I’ve never seen the name of his dam mentioned yet.)
After the original sale, “Mine That Bird” was sent to Canada, and there he found his stride. He was two-year-old of the year at Woodbine Park, enough to get him in the juvenile field at the Breeders Cup. He finished 12th. At some point, Mark Allen and his barroom buddy, and trainer, Bernie Woolley Jr., made a $400,000 deal with Leonard Blach, a 74-year-old moneybags. “Mine That Bird” had earnings that qualified him for the Derby, but Blach had to be talked into it. Then, on his post-race interview, he babbled like a bumblehead who had invented racing.
It was one helluva story. The jockey was just the proper foil for this scene. Calvin Borel had won two years ago aboard “Street Sense”, riding the rail, and he worked the same strategy in this one. Rounding the bend for home, Borel moved “Mine That Bird” onto the rail and sent him flying into the lead with such dispatch that the famous race caller, Tom Durkin, lost track of him. He won by what I’d call seven lengths, while those pampered million-dollar thoroughbreds behind him ate his dust—-well, make that mud.
I can say this: I had the winner of the first Derby I covered in 1950, “Middleground”, another hardscrabble horse off the historic King Ranch in Texas; and I had the winner of my last Derby, “Street Sense”, under the skilled rail-riding hand of Calvin Borel. I’m sorry I missed attending this one, but I couldn’t have reveled in it more had I been there.
PS: I was also pulling for the high school principal, Tom McCarthy, the one-man stable, retired at 75 from teaching, but having himself a ball with “General Quarters”. He finished 10th. Not bad, prof!