Belmont Stakes: How Did We Miss Mine That Bird?
by Trevor Whenham - 05/22/2009
Ever since I sat in the grandstand at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and watched a rocket shoot up the rail to win by 6 ¾-lengths I've been asking myself one question again and again - how in the world did everyone, and I mean everyone, miss out on picking Mine That Bird? That vexation has only grown since the horse went out in the Preakness and proved that the Derby performance was no fluke. He didn't win at Pimlico, but he overcame obstacles, showed incredible class, and was closing very fast down the stretch. And he did all that with a new jockey, too. Now we are faced with a very strange situation - a horse that was a 50/1 horse with no hope in the Derby is now likely to be a very solid favorite to win the Belmont. How does that happen? I'll admit up front that I was like everyone else - I gave the horse little chance, and I didn't even think of betting on him in the Derby. Let's see what hindsight can tell us about what we should have seen all along.
Anti-Canadian bias - One of the common complaints I heard about this horse was that he had raced as a two year old in Canada. Canadian racing has seen better days, and the racing there, specifically at Woodbine, is generally seen as not on par with major American tracks. That may or may not be true, but good horse can come from anywhere, and Mine That Bird gave us any indication that he was a good horse. He was named the top two year old in the country last year, and he did it on the strength of a four-race winning streak. The last of those wins, in the Grey Breeders' Cup Stakes in October, should have been given more credit than it was. The 2002 winner, Wando, went on to win the Canadian Triple Crown. 2000 winner Macho Uno won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was named Two Year Old of the Year at the Eclipse Awards. 1989 winner Sky Classic also won an Eclipse - top turf male in 1992. 1982 winner Sunny's Halo won the 1983 Kentucky Derby. So did 1967 winner Dancer's Image, though he was ultimately disqualified from his Derby win because of a positive drug test. Mine That Bird won a very classy race. He also won the Swynford Stakes. Sunny's Halo won that as well, and Touch Gold was second in 196 before crushing Silver harm's Triple Crown chances by wining the Belmont in 1997.
Breeders' Cup debacle - Another big strike against the horse was that he was dead last in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - a field that included Derby horses. That's undeniably true, but the circumstances make the result almost irrelevant. The Juvenile was on Oct. 25. On Oct. 11 the horse was sold. He was transferred from Ontario to California soon afterwards. He was put temporarily into the barn of trainer Richard Mandella. Mandella didn't know the horse, and he knew that the gelding wasn't going to stay with him beyond the race, so his motivation likely wasn't as high as it might otherwise have been. Given the change in environment, handling and so on, it's no wonder that the horse wasn't at his best.
Anti-small track bias - I've been to Sunland Park. It's in New Mexico, but just across the border from El Paso, Texas. It's a nice little track complete with a lake that fills the entire infield and a very nice grandstand. The lunch I had at the concession was among the best I have had at a track. Nothing about the place, though, makes you think of big-time racing. Mine That Bird not only wound up there as a three year old, but he didn't even win. A closer look at those races, though, makes the performances seem better than they look. The Borderland Derby was his dirt debut. He found the lead early, held on through a blistering pace, and only lost in the end after a long stretch duel with a fast closing horse. Nothing wrong with that - especially since we know that that style isn't the horse's best. Next time out, in the Sunland Derby, he hung back further off the pace, made a move and took the lead in the stretch, and couldn't quite hold on. He wound up fourth. What sticks out most from that one is that the horse who finished behind him - Todd Pletcher's Advice - went off at 30/1 in the Kentucky Derby. Prepping at Sunland Park obviously isn't a big positive, but it shouldn't have been as negative as we made it.
Change in running style - This is the most overlooked thing of all. New trainer Chip Woolley must have spent a lot of time looking at the past performances of the horse when he got it, because he clearly noticed something - the horse was always flying at the end. In all his wins at Woodbine he settled just off the pace and closed in the final strides. In early experimentation with the horse, though, Woolley saw that the horse only had one sustained charge in him. That was learned the hard way in both races at Sunland Park - he made a nice move, got to the front, but had to hold it off too long and faltered. Woolley adjusted the running style significantly between the first and the second race - he was much further back in the Sunland Derby, and he waited much longer to make his move. The trainer continued to tweak the running style in training after that last race - something he told anyone who asked before the Kentucky Derby. The problem is that few people cared enough to ask. He also hired perhaps the best guy in the country to ride a hard closer at Churchill Downs in Calvin Borel. Woolley may be a totally inexperienced trainer, but he had crafted a careful plan for Derby success, and it was there for us to see if we looked for it.
I won't suggest for a second that Mine That Bird was obvious, or that we were all wrong for not picking him. I would say, though, that when you look closely at it his 50/1 price was probably a bit longer than it deserved to be. He was clearly a longshot, but perhaps it was an injustice to make him the biggest winning longshot of the modern era. That being said, though I wish I could say that I would pick him this time if I had it to do all over again, I'm quite certain that that isn't true.