Mine That Bird at Santa Anita Park in Oct. 2009 (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
By Liane Crossley
What do racehorses and outer space travel have in common?
They are both tourist attractions in Roswell, N.M.
Many people specifically flock to Roswell to visit a museum detailing the mysterious 1947 crash thought to have been a flying saucer with space aliens aboard. But some make the trip to visit Mine That Bird, winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Mine That Bird’s story has inspired a movie tentatively set for release this year.
“We have visitors about four or five times a week that come and see him,” said equine veterinarian Leonard Blach, who co-owns Mine That Bird with Mark Allen. “Some are passing through town; others come to see relatives, and they want to see Mine That Bird.”
A Mine That Bird billboard outside Roswell. (Photo by Liane Crossley)
Just as statues and pictures of extraterrestrials adorn area businesses, Mine That Bird memorabilia can be seen around Roswell. An oversized billboard on the city’s outskirts points to the “home of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird” at Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine facility. His Kentucky Derby trophy, saddle towel and shoes are displayed downtown at the Valley Bank of Commerce, and local restaurants have decorated their walls with various Derby photos and newspaper clippings.
Even his stabling befits a star. His air-conditioned stall is monitored by a video camera. Lush grass grows in his paddock, and his shady open-air shelter is adorned with replicas of the famed Churchill Downs twin spires. A bowl of Mine That Bird’s favorite treat — peppermint candies — overflows in Dr. Blach’s office in a nearby barn.
As a gelding, Mine That Bird has no residual value for breeding and he is a prime candidate to spend his days in the public’s eye at a place such as the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington or Old Friends Equine Retirement in Georgetown that house well-known horses for viewing. While he may make a road trip for guest appearances in the future, his permanent residence always will be Roswell.
“We have been approached about that but it will probably never happen as long as Mark and I are around,” Blach said. “He means so much to us that we don’t want him out of our sight.”
Mine that Bird will make a brief visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum during the Churchill Downs spring meet, the first time the museum has had a Kentucky Derby winner stabled on the grounds to greet the thousands of Derby enthusiasts during this peak time of year.
But it’s only temporary. He is expected to arrive at the Derby Museum at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 15th as the resident thoroughbred and stay through July 4th.
Mine That Bird is the subject of children’s books and the focus of the aptly named movie 50 to 1, which concluded filming last year. The movie was produced by Jim Wilson, the producer of Dances With Wolves, and was filmed throughout New Mexico as well as Churchill Downs. Although he lacks a speaking part, Blach said he is in the background of several scenes.
Blach’s role will be played by William Devane (Knots Landing television series and The Dark Knight Rises) and Allen will be portrayed by country music star Christian Kane, whose movie credits include Friday Night Lights. The role of Woolley is played by Skeet Ulrich, known as Detective Rex Winters in the Law and Order series.
Unusual road to the Derby
A Mine That Bird postcard, courtesy of Dr. Leonard Blach
Mine That Bird’s unlikely journey to fame began in Central Kentucky, where he was born on May 10, 2006. He was somewhat lacking in stature, conformation and pedigree, so it was no surprise when he was sold for $9,500 at the Fasig-Tipton Co.’s Lexington yearling sale in October 2007. The following year, he displayed so much talent in Canada that he was resold at a handsome profit. His new owners, Blach and Allen, and trainer Bennie “Chip” Woolley brought him to the United States to continue his career.
Mine That Bird launched his 3-year-old season in the Southwest. After he finished a close fourth in the Sunland Derby in New Mexico, his connections set their sights on the Kentucky Derby. The bay gelding made the journey to Louisville in a top-of-the-line trailer pulled by a first-class truck driven by Woolley.
Although trainers often haul their own racehorses, the long-distance trek with a personal touch was viewed as a novelty and set the Mine That Bird team apart from his rivals. The fact that Woolley used crutches at the time because of a leg injury and wore a cowboy hat added another layer of intrigue.
From the bettors’ point of view, Mine That Bird’s recent racing performance was substandard. He was a 50-1 longshot in the field of 19. Through the first half of the 1 ¼-mile race, Mine That Bird lagged in last place before gaining momentum. When he soared to victory, paying $103.20 on a $2 wager, the unlikely story took on a surreal quality. Mine That Bird and his connections were perched squarely into the spotlight.
Mine That Bird continued racing after his Derby victory, but he never won again. Two weeks after his surprise triumph, he finished second in the Preakness Stakes and then checked in third in the Belmont Stakes, the other jewels of horse racing’s Triple Crown. After a third-place finish in the West Virginia Derby, Mine That Bird was transferred to legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, but he failed to finish among the top three again and was retired to Roswell at the end of 2010.
“This will always be his permanent home,” Blach said. “Life wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t see him every day.”