Mine That Bird stood regally, his ears pricked, his gaze fixed on the rows of clicking cameras. Then the 50-1 upset winner of the Kentucky Derby put his head down and began munching on grass, leaving his human handlers still in shock about his stunning 6 3/4-length victory a day earlier.
"It's hard to believe we come in here and actually won this thing," bareback rider-turned-trainer Bennie Woolley Jr. said Sunday morning. "Right now it's a little overwhelming."
As proof, Mine That Bird wore a cream blanket with embroidered red roses proclaiming him as the Derby winner.
Whether he moves on to run in the 1 1-16-mile Preakness on May 16 will be decided in the next couple days, Woolley said.
"The Preakness tends to be a little more speed-biased and I don't know that that's going to fit our horse all that well," he said.
If Mine That Bird skips the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, he'll be pointed toward the Belmont Stakes in June. Woolley believes the grueling 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" would suit the gelding, whose father Birdstone won the 2004 Belmont.
The Derby winner hasn't bypassed the Preakness since 1996, when Grindstone was injured between the two races and retired. The Derby winner has followed up by winning the Preakness seven times in the last 12 years.
Mark Allen wants to see the horse he and Leonard Blach purchased for $400,000 before last year's Breeders' Cup run in Baltimore.
"If this horse is doing good, you bet we'll run, but he's going to have to tell us," he said. "The horse will tell us. We don't owe nobody nothing."
Going into the Derby, Woolley, along with co-owners Allen and Blach, had the modest goal of finishing sixth or better with the gelding they vanned from New Mexico to compete against some of the sport's priciest horseflesh.
"The horse was training good, we knew that," Allen said, "but we were going against guys like D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, so you got to be real about it."
Under an expert rail-hugging ride by Calvin Borel, Mine That Bird came flying home in the mud to earn a victory that was worth $1.4 million. He'd never even run in a Grade 1 stakes race before Saturday.
Baffert and Lukas, both Hall of Fame trainers who own a combined seven Derby victories, later offered their congratulations to the self-described cowboys who came up the same way they did, owning and training quarterhorses.
Woolley, Allen and Blach didn't bet on Mine That Bird, whose $103.20 win payout was the second-largest in Derby history.
"I figured he'd go off at 100-1," Woolley said. "Every playmaker in the Form and everything else said he had the biggest chance to run last of anybody."
While Mine That Bird's connections considered his Preakness prospects, potential rivals were lining up to take him on.
Trainer Gary Stute said Papa Clem, who finished fourth in the Derby, will run in the Preakness.
"I looked at the charts this morning and I was only beaten a nose and a head for second," he said. "Baffert's horse (Pioneerof the Nile) came over and bumped me. If it were a normal race there might have been an inquiry. With any luck we could have been second."
Other possible starters from the Derby are runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, third-place Musket Man, Join in the Dance (7th), General Quarters (10th) and wagering favorite Friesan Fire, who finished next-to-last.
Potential new shooters are Delta Jackpot winner Big Drama, Withers winner Mr. Fantasy, Take the Points and Miner's Escape. The Preakness is limited to 14 starters.
After a steady rain gave way to overcast skies, Woolley and Allen made their way to the front gate of Churchill Downs.
They placed the winner's garland of red roses on the recently unveiled statue of Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner who broke down in the Preakness and had to be euthanized nine months later.
After fans had a chance to take photos, the garland was removed. The two men then stripped the blanket of its flowers and handed them out to a long line of fans, some of whom told Woolley and Allen they had cashed big win tickets on Mine That Bird.
Several people congratulated and thanked the buddies, who first met up in a New Mexico bar 25 years ago.
"I started a fight and he helped me out," Allen said, nodding in Woolley's direction. "We wound up on top, but it took us a while."
They could say the same thing about their road to improbable Derby glory.
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