It took 72 hours, but I finally found it – ill will toward Mine That Bird. And I wasn’t even looking for it.
When the 50-1 long shot came home a winner in Kentucky Derby 135, the buzz at Churchill Downs was unlike any I’d encountered in my 37 Derbies (35 in a row. The only one I missed in that streak was the 100th, in 1974).
Obviously, precious few had bet on the colt that had been vanned to Louisville from New Mexico, so most of us were standing there with pari-mutuel tickets worth bupkis – nothing. And mine weren’t just mine. They belonged to more than 40 other people. More on that in a moment.
But then we realized, and some fans didn’t just think it, they shouted: “It’s Calvin!”
Calvin Borel was the rider who, as he urged his colt toward the finish line, pointed at somebody just as he passed me, a few yards from the tunnel where the horses had emerged to the strain of “My Old Kentucky Home.” A few strides of the big bay later, he was shaking his whip in the air, a winner in the world’s most famous horse race for the second time in three years.
Churchill Downs is home for Borel, one of the more popular riders in Louisville. He adopted the city after growing up in Catahoula, Louisiana, learning to ride at the “bush tracks.” And you know by now, his winning ride was pure Calvin.
NBC race caller Tom Durkin may have struggled to get out the words, “Mine That Bird” before the colt crossed the finish line but Lexington’s Tom Hammond, who once again expertly anchored the network’s coverage, instantly recognized “Calvin Bo-Rail!”
Hammond knew that the path Borel had traveled during the prior two minutes was familiar and favorite. The veteran rider is the king of the inside route at the Downs, patiently awaiting the skimpiest of openings before gunning his mount through, all the while saving valuable ground.
In fact, he saved nearly a sixteenth of a mile of it early in the race. Mine That Bird broke so badly, the gap between him and the rest of the field was embarrassing. His connections, looking on in their once-in-a-lifetime seats, feared the worst. All they wanted, they had said, was for him to be competitive. Mine That Bird was in danger of becoming a comical footnote.
But Borel didn’t panic. Though he’d never ridden the horse in a race, he had studied his form, via video. He concluded that the horse didn’t need to be near the lead, that he should lay back and make one big run. And that’s exactly what the two of them did, horse and rider.
On the NBC telecast, former jockeys Donna Barton Brothers and Gary Stevens commiserated during the post parade about the track, which stubbornly held moisture all day. It might have been sloppy at post time, but Brothers and Stevens agreed it was what riders call, “wet fast.” Still, it was more taxing than a dry track, and Borel took advantage.
The most popular replay of the race wasn’t the artistic, slo-mo shot of Borel blasting down the stretch, winning by near-record margin. It was the shot provided by whichever blimp NBC wisely hired for the weekend, the one that showed Mine That Bird gobbling up ground, picking off tired horses with every other stride. Not once but twice did Borel find a hole on the rail and take advantage.
The second time he did it was in deep stretch. WKYT sports videographer Steve Moss was standing next to me, as he has for so many Derbies. For each of the past four, Steve and I have organized nearly four dozen friends and co-workers, each of whom threw in a few bucks in a pool we eventually would invest in a superfecta (pick the horses 1-2-3-4 and you’re a BIG winner).
We started the exercise four years ago, when Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex were the two favorites.
A short-priced horse in the 20-horse field always means lots of long shots. And while we liked those two, we also knew there were a lot of other quality horses that could hit the board in the super, and provide some ready piles of cash.
This was in 2005, and the record book shows that Giacomo, a late-closing California colt, was the winner. Bellamy road and Afleet Alex got caught up in a front-end speed duel, and it cooked them, opening the door for the “bombers:” 50-1 shot Giacomo, 70-1 shot Closing Argument, Afleet Alex and 30-1 shot Don’t Get Mad. The super paid more than $1.6 million on a $2 ticket. No, we didn’t have it. But we were convinced the superfecta syndicate was a grand idea.
So last Saturday, we had a ticket with eight horses represented, five “on top.” Those were the five we thought had the best chance of winning. We added another to the second line, still another to the third and one more to the fourth.
We also threw out the two short-priced horses from the top line and boxed another seven in a trifecta – essentially, all longshots, except for Pioneer of the Nile, whom we threw in at the end. More than 40 other people threw in with us.
Unfortunately, not one of the colts on the top line was named, “Mine That Bird.” In fact, he got virtually the same amount of attention from us that he did from practically every other handicapper: about five seconds’ worth. He just didn’t belong in the race, we reasoned.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. We forgot about Calvin.
He’d already won the Kentucky Oaks the day before, on Rachel Alexandra. It was a performance reminiscent of the Belmont victory by Secretariat, and by the effort turned in by his son, Risen Star. But Borel modestly admitted to me, in the Derby pre-race show earlier that morning, he was little more than a passenger in the Oaks – that’s how great a horse Rachel Alexandra is.
Still, I do remember finding it odd that a jockey who knows this track so well, who had won the 2007 Kentucky Derby on Street Sense, could land a ride only on a horse that most people though would get in everybody’s way. But that’s where my consideration ended.
Silly, silly man.
In fact, Mr. Silly had to look at his program as Steve Moss yelled, “There’s somebody coming through on the rail! Who’s the eight?”
“Mine That Bird,” I hollered, more asking than telling. And as he sped by us, I was among the thousands who yelled, “It’s Calvin!” Then, remembering the Oaks: “He’s done it again!”
Mine That Bird ruined our superfecta AND our long shot trifecta, which finished 2-3-4. One horse way from riches.
In a few seconds, we stopped feeling sorry for ourselves and started feeling good not just for Borel, a class act, but for the trainer, Woolley, a guy who’d hobbled around the downs on crutches with a busted ankle, thanks to a motorcycle accident. He knew how fortunate he was to be there, and never said anything but.
Perusing the inter-web today, I came across some incredibly mean-spirited remarks from a racing “fan,” who wished Mine That Bird, Woolley and the horse’s owners nothing but the worst.
Apparently this “fan” was still angry about the race, and doubly annoyed that Woolley had waited more than 30 seconds before announcing he would point the horse toward the Preakness Stakes as the only contender with a shot at the Triple Crown. In fact, he said there was a possibility they’d skip the race entirely.
Never mind the fact that standard training procedure is to wait until the next day, to see if the colt develops any complications overnight. The chat-room genius decided Woolley was trying to big-time us all, after winning the Derby with an inferior horse.
My guess is that Woolley, a true hardboot with every right to stand under his ever-present cowboy hat, doesn’t spend much time on the internet. And neither does Borel. Nor should they. Both belong at the track, doing what they do best – making dreams come true.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel has covered horse racing for Channel 27 since 1985. He is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)