Two weeks ago, compelling story lines for the Triple Crown season seemed to be mired in the muddy track of Churchill Downs.
But that was before 50-1 shot Mine That Bird and journeyman jockey Calvin Borel made a dramatic break from dead last, rocketing up the rail and winning the 135th Kentucky Derby.
Among the countless stunned onlookers was veteran NBC commentator Tom Hammond. As he prepares to work his 10th consecutive Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Hammond, like all thoroughbred racing enthusiasts, now has plenty to talk about.
"I've always said that racing has more stories than maybe any other sport except for maybe the Olympics," Hammond, also a longtime NBC Olympics analyst, said by phone this week. "It's not unusual to get good stories when you have horses and all the people associated with them, but this one is richer than most in terms of great stories."
Here's what has gotten the attention of Hammond — and many others — since Mine That Bird's unlikely run for glory.
Bully for Woolley
Before the Derby, America knew nothing of Mine That Bird or the gelding's colorful trainer, Bennie ''Chip'' Woolley Jr. Now the 45-year-old former rodeo bareback rider is a media darling, a plain-spoken horseman who, until Mine That Bird came along, had never trained a thoroughbred that won a race with a purse greater than $60,000.
Woolley, with his black cowboy hat and long mustache, drove from his Sunland Park training base in New Mexico to Kentucky with a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident. He arrived as the rough-hewn, cactus-country antithesis of the mint julep Derby crowd and left as the seventh trainer since 2000 to win the Derby in his first attempt.
"To be honest, I didn't have any real feeling that I could win the Derby," he said. "We wanted to be competitive, and we knew we would be more competitive than everybody gave us credit for."
Hammond's perspective on Woolley was limited before the race. "To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about him," the analyst said, laughing. "And he'd had such a dismal year, not winning many races. And then to come up and win the Kentucky Derby, and to do it with that broken leg and driving the van with his left foot 21 hours to get the horse to Churchill Downs. He's cowboy through and through and not too impressed by all the Derby hoopla and millions of dollars of horse flesh he was facing."
And if you're curious about Mine That Bird's odd name: His mother is Mining My Own (granddaughter of Mr. Prospector), and his father is Birdstone, who spoiled Smarty Jones' bid for the Triple Crown in the 2004 Belmont. Hence the concept of tapping into Birdstone and Derby-winning grandfather Grindstone's championship ways.
Calvin's saddle swap
Never before has a jockey won the Kentucky Derby, then switched to a new mount for the Preakness to compete against the Derby-winning horse.
But that's what Calvin Borel is doing, moving to highly touted filly Rachel Alexandra. Why on earth would he ditch the horse that vaulted him back into the public eye two years after he rode Street Sense to a Derby win with a similar late rail charge?
Because the Louisiana-born jockey with the hardscrabble roots, brought to tears by his Derby victory, is the winner of five straight aboard Rachel Alexandra. And like everyone else, he never expected he would win the Derby. Though Borel worked out Mine That Bird early this week at Churchill Downs, he was committed to riding the filly if she entered the Preakness as a supplemental nominee, and that happened Wednesday, six days after she was sold to Stonestreet Stables.
It's now possible there will be a Triple Crown jockey, if Borel wins Saturday and at the Belmont Stakes on June 6.
"That would be history also," Hammond said. "Calvin Borel has really caught our attention since he rode Street Sense with that great move two years ago. He has established himself now in the top ranks of jockeys. People are even talking about how he may wind up in the Hall of Fame someday. That's a far cry from what he was two years ago."
Borel, 42, finished second in the 2007 Preakness, and with Triple Crown hopes over, Street Sense's owners kept the horse out of the Belmont. He watched YouTube videos of Mine That Bird's previous races and was convinced the gelding, 0-for-2 as a 3-year-old, needed to stay back in the pack and save one big move for the end of the race.
"Perhaps we are the ones who were remiss in not recognizing the ability and talents (Borel) had," Hammond said. "Certainly some of the top trainers have come to realize that this is a jockey who can ride with the best of them and is patient and fearless. He might not be the most polished individual you'll see, but his emotion is genuine, and his abilities are now pretty much unquestioned."
Alexandra the Great
Rachel Alexandra is the horse du jour, more than capable of outrunning her male counterparts Saturday, as her 8-5 odds indicate.
The buzz has grown since her 20 1/4-length victory May 1 in the Kentucky Oaks. She will be the first filly to run in the Preakness in 10 years and would become only the fifth filly winner.
"I question a little bit the quality of the competition she faced in the Kentucky Oaks, but that doesn't take anything away. It was still a resounding victory any way you look at it," Hammond said of the race for fillies in which Justwhistledixie, a winner of five consecutive races, was scratched with a foot injury. "People who have been around racing their whole lives are just bug-eyed to see her; she's just that amazing. And she's as big and strong as the colts, and bigger and stronger than most of them, including Mine That Bird. So it'll be interesting to see how it all plays out."
One prerace drama already has, injecting what looked like an element of equine sexism into the proceedings.
Because the Preakness field is limited to 14, officials give preference to original nominees. The owners of Mine That Bird and Derby runnerup Pioneerof the Nile said they would each enter an extra horse to keep the filly out, with Derby-winning owner Mark Allen offering up 0-for-9 Indy Express. Then Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas jumped in with a plan to enter a second horse, Luv Gov, for owner Marylou Whitney.
All three backed off their box-out plans, though the colt Whitney named as a shot at Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as New York governor last year amid a sex scandal, remains in the field.
"If Allen and his partners and so on had tried to keep (Rachel Alexandra) out, they'd have been wearing black hats for sure," Hammond said. "I think there would have been a backlash against them from the racing public and the sporting fans for not being fair. Cooler heads prevailed."
And now the equine story lines are about to heat up.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.