Mine That Bird's sire gets his due

Surprise Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is basking in popularity after making history. His father is best remembered for spoiling it.

"He was the villain," says Michael Hernon of Gainesway Farm, where Birdstone, the Derby winner's sire, now lives.

Nothing personal against the small, energetic stallion, but his most momentous day on the track came when most of the country was pulling against him.

It was the 2004 Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones appeared seconds away from ending racing's long drought without a Triple Crown. Then, in a burst of late speed came the compact but muscular Birdstone, and history was foiled again.

That may sound familiar to Bob Baffert, trainer of this year's Derby runner-up, Pioneerof the Nile, who was beaten by another small horse that seemingly came out of nowhere to pass him and the rest of the field.

Mine That Bird's daring move came along the rail under Calvin Borel, while his father went wide to circle Smarty and others five years earlier.

The moral is don't judge a horse by his build — either on the racetrack or in the breeding shed.

"This is a great win for the smaller breeder, the smaller horse," Hernon said.

Birdstone's 83-year-old owner, socialite Marylou Whitney, attended the Derby and was overcome with tearful excitement after Mine That Bird pulled the upset. For her, it was affirmation that she was right all along about her stallion's progeny.

"It was the most exciting moment in my life," Whitney said. "I don't think people believed in Birdstone like I did."

They do now, and as Hernon, the director of sales at Gainesway, eagerly points out to any owner of a mare determined to set up a mating, "This is not a one-hit wonder."

Derby weekend alone verifies that. Of the 19 Derby starters, two came from Birdstone's first crop — including Summer Bird, who finished sixth. He also produced Stone Legacy, the distant runner-up to Rachel Alexandra in the Kentucky Oaks.

Since the Derby, Gainesway has been flooded with calls to make a breeding appointment with Birdstone. Whitney has no immediate plans to raise his $10,000 stud fee, even though she knows she could get much more. (Smarty Jones, for example, got $100,000 for his first crop).

"It's very humbling," said Whitney's husband, John Hendrickson, who has managed the business since Whitney had a stroke in 2006. "People knocked him. People kept on doubting him. People said he's too tiny, not good looking. He's tiny, but mighty."

Birdstone had about 80 breeding appointments scheduled this year prior to the Derby and now that total is at 110 and rising, Hernon said. As for the stallion himself, Whitney insists he is not for sale.

Her family has been in the horse breeding business for four generations, once owning the land where Gainesway now sits. However, it has been all mares since she and Hendrickson took over. The one exception was Birdstone, who was retired from the track and became a stallion in 2005 when a bone chip was detected in his ankle. Whitney was so attached to him, she couldn't let him go.

Birdstone still isn't the most sought-after stallion at Gainesway, where the likes of breeding stars Afleet Alex, Mr. Greeley and Tapit also live. (Mine That Bird's dam, Mining My Own, is currently in foal to Tapit). However, Birdstone's youthfulness is clear to everyone who works there.

"He's real active, just like a youngster," said Carl Buckler, who has been the stallion manager at Gainesway for 18 years. "He'll go around the paddock and circle it. Those other horses go half way and come back."