Like Mine That Bird, '50 to 1' taking fans by surprise

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 18, 2014 

  • In theaters

    '50 to 1'

    (PG-13). 1:50. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Movie Tavern.

"Who's that? Is it someone famous?"

For the connections of Mine That Bird, the scene at Keeneland on Friday had to be strangely reminiscent of the atmosphere at Churchill Downs five years ago, when the little-known gelding got the cold shoulder from Thoroughbred racing.

The horse had the last laugh, winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby in a stunning upset.

Now director Jim Wilson and the cast of 50 to 1 are backing their own longshot. Wilson, screenwriter Faith Conroy, and actors Skeet Ulrich, Todd Lowe and Christian Kane have traveled the country together in a bus, emblazoned with their movie poster, on their own dime to promote the independent film of Mine That Bird's story.

But they aren't doing it alone.

The story about the film has captured the imagination of a cadre of fans, who made their own journeys to racetracks and cities along the way.

Michelle Petrovich came from Pennsylvania to Lexington to see the cast — again. This was at least her third time. Maybe fourth.

"It's the movie. It's the whole story itself," she said, trying to explain what drew her in.

"Everybody's been a long shot at one time or another," chimed in her friend Diana Walker of Lexington.

Jeannean Sword came from Illinois, wearing a "Kaniac" shirt, "to watch Mine That Bird win the Derby again."

She hasn't actually seen the movie yet. Few had who were at Keeneland on Friday to get autographed movie posters from the cast and director, as well as real-life trainer Chip Woolley and owner Leonard "Doc" Blach, because the film hasn't been released nationally. It opened Friday at theaters at Hamburg Pavilion, Fayette Mall and the Movie Tavern.

Sword may have seen Mine That Bird's Derby win, but she doesn't consider herself a racing fan.

"But I will be after tonight," she said.

Like other Kaniacs at Keeneland, she came to provide support for a movie that is still trying to gain traction with Hollywood.

Wilson, who shared an Oscar with Kevin Costner as producers of Dances with Wolves, is financing the unusual promotional campaign, traveling for five weeks with many of the actors, recreating Mine That Bird's original trek to Churchill Downs. (Kane had another commitment that prevented him from being in Lexington.)

"These guys are troupers," Wilson said. "It's a testament to their faith in the film."

Wilson said they have gone to great lengths to make the movie accurate, using NBC's footage of the race when they can.

But there were some shots that just didn't exist — because Mine That Bird came from so far behind the rest of the field.

Wilson said they originally looked for an actor to play jockey Calvin Borel before realizing that only Borel could do the job.

Ulrich, who plays trainer Woolley, said that Borel — known for his steely nerves in the irons — was at first nervous about the cameras.

But once they were on his home turf — the racetrack — everything fell into place.

"It isn't just a cameo; he's got a role," said actor Todd Lowe, who plays a buddy named Kelly. "He's the emotional center of the film."

Wilson and Conroy got lucky in another first-time actor, too: a 3-year-old Thoroughbred from Canada named Sunday Rest, who pulled off such a solid performance as Mine That Bird that he's now working as an actor.

Borel isn't the only real Mine That Bird connection who made the film: everybody, including the real Derby winner, is in there somewhere, Wilson said.

That "we're all in this together" spirit permeates the film on and off-screen, he said. And that resonates with fans.

Lowe, who has watched the film from the back of theaters, said fans often applaud when Mine That Bird wins, even though they know it's going to happen.

"I think it's the common man succeeding in the realm where nobody ever expected him to, living dreams at all cost," Ulrich said. "And never giving up."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl

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