They began their respective journeys with so much in common — and not just because they shared a similar moniker.
In the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, both Summer Bird and Mine That Bird resided on the Churchill Downs backside with their unheralded trainers, largely unknown by the racing public and without a whole lot of respect from their peers.
Fittingly enough, the two overlooked sons of Birdstone combined to claim two-thirds of the Triple Crown and, when the gate opens for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 7, they will be the only holdovers from this year's 3-year-old classics represented.
However, for all their surface similarities the past few months have seen Summer Bird and Mine That Bird go off on very different paths. While one has proceeded to blossom into one of the most accomplished horses in the country, the other — once again — finds himself fighting for recognition.
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When Mine That Bird upset the field in the Kentucky Derby and then ran second to star filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes, it looked as if the bay gelding was primed to become the breakout 3-year-old male of this season.
Instead, it has been the other son of Birdstone who has wrested control of the division, winning the Belmont Stakes in just his fifth career start and following that up with a runner-up finish to Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell prior to scoring triumphs in the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Should Summer Bird prevail in the 11/4-mile Classic, the chestnut colt would not only lock up the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male, but could even garner Horse of the Year votes.
It's a scenario few could have envisioned for a horse who didn't make his first career start until March — and it's a situation his equally upstart trainer Tim Ice is trying to digest.
"It's been an incredible feeling to be here and be in the Breeders' Cup Classic so early with just going out on my own last year and already having a horse that is this good," Ice said. "It's a rush. I'm just taking it all in. At the same time, I still have a job to do.
"But it's just been an unbelievable year."
It has been an equally incredulous whirlwind for Chip Woolley, trainer of Mine That Bird, but the past few months have been filled with setbacks rather than accolades.
Since his runner-up finish in the Preakness, Mine That Bird has struggled to produce the same stirring, late-running kick that shocked the world on the first Saturday of May.
After finishing third in the Belmont following a too-eager move on the backstretch, Mine That Bird was third again in the Grade II West Virginia Derby on Aug. 1 and then missed the Travers when he underwent surgery for an entrapped epiglottis just 10 days before the race.
When the smallish bay gelding returned in the Grade I Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita Park against older horses on Oct. 10, he couldn't overcome the sluggish early pace and finished a non-threatening sixth.
Still, Woolley is confident his trainee can produce another upset on one of racing's most prominent days.
"With the Goodwood in him, and the added distance, it's really going to help him, and there's definitely going to be pace in the Classic," Woolley said. "If you go back and look at the Goodwood, he runs a 99 Beyer (speed figure). Last year when he ran over this racetrack (12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile), he ran a 74 Beyer. Figure it any way you want, but that's a huge difference in the two races."
While Mine That Bird's success hinges on him being able to uncork his one run at just the right moment, Summer Bird has shed his old plodder label and become a versatile performer who can rally — as he did in the Belmont — or stay close up, as evident by his runs in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"I think he has some respect now," Ice said. "But at the same time, you know, he's going to prove himself every time he runs. So I'm going to let him prove that he is worth every bit of respect."
Summer Bird may have the momentum edge on Mine That Bird, but both are in the familiar position of having to possibly overcome a top female runner to attain the ultimate reverence.
After spending much of the year in Rachel Alexandra's shadow, the two probably will have to face undefeated champion mare Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"It's another horse to beat, and she's a great mare," Woolley said. "I've said all along, 'I want to keep myself in the best of company and my horse in the worst of company,' so obviously, you don't want her in there. You'd be foolish to want her in there, but if she runs, she runs."
Added Ice: "I have a lot of respect for Zenyatta and what she's accomplished and everything. But at the same time I feel my horse is improving. I look forward to racing against her. And however the outcome may be, my horse is going to give everything he's got."