On the eve of the Preakness, if there is any part of you that believes a Triple Crown is still a possibility, then you should probably view Mine That Bird's improbable victory in the Kentucky Derby this way:
The horse, the scion of Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, never had a trainer or jockey who understood what he was capable of before Chip Woolley and Calvin Borel. Sure, he was a 50-1 long shot going into the Derby and he had never won a Grade I stakes race, but he had run well and been right there in the Sunland Derby. There was a lot of untapped potential in him, and even though he might be a small horse, he had the closing speed of an Italian sports car.
Of course, there is another way of looking at Mine That Bird, especially if you're a skeptic.
Sure, he won the Kentucky Derby, and no one can ever take that away from him. But he did it only because the perfect storm unfolded, putting him in position to steal a victory when no one else rose to the occasion. For starters, the pre-race favorite, I Want Revenge, was scratched with a career-threatening injury on the day of the race. And then Friesan Fire, another favorite, grabbed a quarter (the term for when one of the horse's back legs crashes into one of his front legs) 10 seconds into the race.
The muddy track slowed most of the field, meaning no one could run away from Mine That Bird even though he was last most of the race, nearly 20 lengths behind the leaders. Mine That Bird got knocked around coming out of the gate, making him less inclined to hang with the pack. And then Borel just happened to find the one dry spot on the Churchill Downs track (the rail), go flying through a tiny gap that closed seconds later, and come from nowhere to steal the victory.
So which is it? Is Mine That Bird a fluke whom we'll never hear from again? Or is he for real?
There are plenty of opinions weighing in on both sides of the debate, and even the Preakness might not provide a definitive answer, especially in light of Borel's decision to ride Rachel Alexandra instead of Mine That Bird. Veteran jockey Mike Smith has the ride on the Derby winner, a 6-1 shot.
"I have a great deal of respect for Mine That Bird after seeing how speedy he was, but going into that race, just looking on paper, I don't understand why he wasn't 100-1," Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said. "His trainer and his owners saw something that no one else saw, because even some of the horses beating him last year when he was a 2-year-old were suspect. But it just shows you that good horses can come from anywhere."
Trainers, owners and jockeys have all tried to strike a balance in their comments about Mine That Bird the past two weeks. There is still healthy skepticism there, as evidenced by the comments of David Fawkes, the trainer of Big Drama. Fawkes didn't enter his horse in the Derby but said he jumped at the chance to put Big Drama in the Preakness after Mine That Bird won. Trainers freely acknowledge that they're a little scared of Rachel Alexandra. But no one is scared of Mine That Bird.
"The whole picture kind of fell apart," Fawkes said of the Derby. "You know, there was no outstanding horse. 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."
Still, there is no denying that it was a remarkable race by Mine That Bird.
"It was the perfect storm," said Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds stables in New Jersey. "Calvin had a great day. He's in a zone, coming off winning the Oaks; he's riding real well. This horse took well to the racetrack.
"I thought that performance was superb. Everything broke right, but the horse had to do it. I never discredit a winner."
Overlooked was the fact that Mine That Bird won by a larger margin than Barbaro and Big Brown, both considered serious Triple Crown threats coming out of the Derby in recent years.
"To be honest, you know, I was probably like everyone else in that I was a little skeptical of his chances going in," said Gary Stute, trainer of Papa Clem. "But I will tell you what: He was [by far] the best that day, whether it was the slop that improved him or maybe just the right ride. Very few jockeys would have enough confidence to take a horse that far behind the second-to-last horse and make that run. I just think it was the superior training job and a superior ride. Personally, I'm hoping it was the mud, but like I said, he ran awesome."
Woolley doesn't seem to mind the skepticism. In a sport increasingly dominated by money and connections, he seems to enjoy playing the role of the outlaw, the black hat-wearing cowboy in sunglasses. Let them take a dig here and there, and let them make a big deal out of the fact that he drove his horse to Kentucky by himself left-footed because of a recent motorcycle accident. He had the last laugh at the Derby.