Kentucky Derby

Mine That Bird getting no respect

A week ago, the itinerary for the undefeated colt Hull had New York penciled in as his next destination for a start in the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont Park June 6.

That was until ...

"When the Kentucky Derby went the way it did we decided to take a shot," said Barry Irwin of Team Valor, co-owner of Hull.

Seven days ago, trainer David Fawkes was considering sending Big Drama to Texas for Saturday's Grade III Lone Star Derby.

When did he change his mind?

"Pretty much after watching the Derby," Fawkes said.

One would think when a horse wins the Kentucky Derby by 63/4 lengths while running the final quarter in just over 23 seconds, his rivals might not be so quick to want to lock horns with him two weeks later in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

But ever since the unheralded gelding Mine That Bird rollicked to a stunning victory in the 135th Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1, his achievement has been greeted with a heavy dose of skepticism rather than respect.

While the mere thought of seeing Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra in the field for the Preakness Stakes has some connections downright edgy, the confirmed presence of Derby winner Mine That Bird isn't exactly inspiring fear from would-be challengers.

In addition to Hull and Big Drama joining the Preakness mix, Terrain — fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes — has tossed his hat into the ring with Flying Private, who ran last in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby field, coming back to take on the horse who beat him 433/4 lengths.

"You know, there was no outstanding horse," Fawkes said of his decision to come to the Preakness. "I mean yeah, the winner, he was impressive, but as far as all of the favorites, you know, they all had reasons for what happened.

"Yeah, I would like to see (Mine That Bird win) again I think (before I believe it)."

Despite throwing down what seemed to be one of the more impressive Derby efforts in decades, there is still an overwhelming sentiment Mine That Bird's performance was more a product of circumstance rather than superior ability.

Mine That Bird's only graded stakes triumph prior to the Derby was his victory in the Grade III Grey Stakes over the synthetic surface at Woodbine last October. He was winless in two starts at Sunland Park this year heading into the Derby.

Although the son of Birdstone had never started on an off track prior to Derby Day, some feel the sloppy Churchill oval that proved so taxing for many of the favorites actually played into Mine That Bird's favor.

Instead of being weighed down by the surface, the smallish Mine That Bird appeared to skip across the mud.

And since he didn't really get running until the final 3 furlongs, he was able to avoid the scrum in front of him that saw many contenders emerge with cuts and nicks.

"It was a very demanding track. I hadn't been here in a few years but it was very demanding training up to the race, I've never seen it like this before," said trainer Bob Baffert after saddling Grade I winner Pioneerof the Nile to a runner-up effort in the Derby. "Not all horses like this track so this track might have moved that horse up."

Without question, one of the biggest keys to Mine That Bird's triumph was the heady ride from jockey Calvin Borel.

Not only was Borel patient enough to take him well back in the early going — thus allowing Mine That Bird to save his kick for one big run — he executed a daring move by hustling through a miniscule hole on the rail during his remarkable stretch run.

When it was announced Rachel Alexandra would be pointed for the Preakness, however, Borel also confirmed he was staying with the filly, prompting Mine That Bird's connections to seek out a new rider.

"(Mine That Bird) was much the best that day ... but maybe it was just the right ride because, to be honest, I know very few jockeys who would have enough confidence to take a horse that far behind the second to last horse and make that run," said trainer Gary Stute, who will send out Papa Clem in the Preakness. "I think it was the superior training job and a superior ride."

While Mine That Bird's trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr. doesn't expect the bandwagon to fill up between now and May 16, he would like to remind critics his star gelding had legitimate excuses for some of his defeats.

Though much has been made of Mine That Bird's last place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in October, Woolley admits he and the owners were wrong to even run him to the race after he arrived at Santa Anita from Canada just five days before.

"Looking back, we should have never run him up there," Woolley said. "He got out there and it was 100 degrees nearly out there on the race track and he had no chance to recover from the trip."

To his credit, Woolley has taken the slights against Mine That Bird in stride. But that doesn't mean he believes all the knocks are justified.

"You know, my horse's form didn't say he could win the Derby; I will be the first to say that," Woolley said. "But, you know, he passed 18 head of horses from the three-eighths pole to the wire that were all Grade I horses so ...

"I do not know that it was fluke, but I guess we'll find out down the road."