Seabiscuit meets Syriana

May 5, 2009

Every constituency among fans of horse racing found something to believe in at the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

SOME FOLKS think the Kentucky Derby is one of the sports world's signature events, where horses are athletes to be appreciated for their power and beauty. Others consider the so-called "sport of kings" ostentatious nonsense, cruel to the animals and one more occasion for the super-rich to throw their money around.

And then there are the little people--fewer and fewer as time goes by--the racetrack touts, the little old ladies and assorted winners and losers lined up at the OTB, making $2 bets and hoping to catch a break.

Each of those constituencies found something to believe in at the 2009 Kentucky Derby. This was an underhorse story of cinematic proportions: one part Syriana and two parts Seabiscuit, as the unknown gelding Mine That Bird came out of nowhere to win the Run for the Roses by eight lengths, overcoming greater odds than any horse in six decades. Competing against Hall-of-Fame trainers, the Sultan of Dubai and horses that are catered to like Texas debutantes, Mine That Bird was the tough and tiny horse that could.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Coming out of the gate, the diminutive gelding was squeezed by two larger horses and soon pushed so far to the rail that he could barely be seen by the 153,000 in attendance. But jockey Calvin Borel used that inside track to his advantage, hugging the rail so closely there were practically sparks between the horse and the edge, and rode to victory on the soggy track.

Before the race, the only press Mine That Bird received was for his journey to Kentucky, not his prospects. The horse from Roswell, N.M., didn't land via flying saucer. He came 1,700 miles in a trailer hitched to the back of trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr.'s 40-year-old pickup truck. Woolley, a former bareback jockey, had driven the horse to the Derby despite having broken his leg several weeks earlier in a motorcycle accident. Woolley's crutches, black cowboy attire and camera-unfriendly dark glasses stood in stark contrast to the ostentatiously hatted Derby crowd.

And to the media who didn't know what to make of him before the race, the laconic Woolley broke out a smile beneath his broad, black Stetson. "They'll know me now, won't they?''

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In an unscripted moment as he encountered Borel after the race, Woolley literally cast his crutches away to embrace the horse and jockey. "To be honest, I didn't have any real feeling that I could win the Derby," he said. "All I knew is that we'd be more competitive than anybody thought we would.''

In a sport where trainers have egos that would rival heavyweight-boxing champions, such an admission is more than remarkable: it's cinematic.

Such was the emotion of the race that Borel broke down in tears after crossing the finish line, recounting the recent death of his mother. "You got a hole, you got a shot,'' Borel said of the way he skillfully guided Mine That Bird through the gaps between horses. "I rode him like a good horse.''

All of this cinematic drama unspooled against a backdrop of recession that saw the lowest attendance at Churchill Downs since 2004. Purel was flowing as fast as mint juleps as health officials issued assurances that swine flu would not impact the race.

Just as Seabiscuit thrilled Depression-era crowds in the 1930s, recession-plagued America now has its own thoroughbred. But while the humble, injured trainer, the volatile jockey and little horse from nowhere all may all seem to be from central casting, one of the guys who owns Mine the Bird is more connected to central booking.

Mine that Bird is the property of Mark Allen, who, with a partner, bought the horse for $400,000. According to the Anchorage Daily News, Allen bought the horse with proceeds from the sale of VECO, his father's Alaskan oil business.

His father, Bill Allen, was a central player in the Sen. Ted Stevens corruption trial, and pleaded guilty in 2007 to bribing Alaska politicians. Part of his plea agreement was immunity for his son. Once Bill had Mark in the free and clear, he testified that the Mind That Bird owner was his personal bagman, paying off Alaskan legislators.

Part of Stevens's 2008 conviction--since voided because of prosecutorial misconduct--was failure to disclose gifts given to him by Bill Allen. (Stevens also once co-owned a piece of another Mark Allen horse, So Long Birdie.) Yikes. But as long as Mark Allen wasn't riding Mine That Bird to the payoff spots, the memories of a remarkable day will probably remain intact.

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