09/09/2009 12:00AM

Big star enlivens small track

Barbara D. Livingston
Ruidoso Downs drew more than 23,000 fans Monday, thanks to an appearance by Mine That Bird.

RUIDOSO DOWNS, N.M. - It was him. No mistake. Little bay, no taller than a fence post. Unmarked save for a bobby sock on a back foot and that ghost of a crescent moon glyph between his eyes. There was lanky Charlie Figueroa on board, crammed into a set of black and silver silks, and a handsome cowboy on the pony alongside, white shirt starched to within an inch of its life, moustache clipped in a horseshoe droop.

Mine That Bird knows he's hot stuff, especially after playing the big rooms of Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park through one of the most memorable Triple Crowns in many years. When he sees a crowd, there's little doubt he thinks it is for his benefit they have gathered. That was true in spades last Monday, as he paraded for the pleasure of grateful fans in his adopted home state, and made history in the process.

Ruidoso Downs is set in a bowl of the pine-crusted Sacramento Mountains of south central New Mexico. A tributary of the Rio Ruidoso runs through the infield - quiet now after last summer's flood - and the Billy the Kid Casino occupies the east end of the grandstand. Monday afternoon, more than 23,000 fans crammed those utilitarian stands, in anticipation of the $2 million All American Futurity.

Just about every significant Quarter Horse champion who ever lived has competed at one time or another at Ruidoso Downs. They are as dear to the culture as the mysteries of Roswell, the White Sands of Alamogordo, and the artisans of Santa Fe.

Kentucky Derby winners are another issue. There's not much to lure them to the Land of Enchantment, except perhaps before the fact, as was the case in 1997 when the 2-year-old Real Quiet failed to win a big pot at the Downs at Santa Fe, or in early 1988, when the young Sunday Silence was vanned back-and-forth across the country from Kentucky in a futile effort to sell him at a 2-year-old auction in Southern California.

Then came Mine That Bird, the Kentucky-bred Canadian 2-year-old champion of 2008, who was bought last fall by New Mexicans Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, then trained last winter at Sunland Park by Chip Woolley and his brother Bill. His stunning, 6 3/4-length victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby put New Mexico on the map (which sounds funny, since it is the fourth largest of the lower 48), and made it an even longer shot that he would ever go home again.

"I didn't ask them to come," said R.D. Hubbard, who owns Ruidoso Downs, along with a herd of fast horses. "In fact, I told them they needn't feel obligated at all. But they insisted. They wanted to share him with the folks back home. And I know for a fact we wouldn't have had this kind of crowd without him."

One of Hubbard's guests chimed in.

"I saw him work out this morning," said Gov. Bill Richardson, an All American regular. "He's little, and very fast. I think it's great what he's done for the state."

Chip Woolley rested on his crutches near the infield walking ring as the All American 2-year-olds fidgeted in the moments before their race. Woolley was watching for his horse to emerge from the tunnel leading from the backstretch to the infield.

"He'll go right on out to the track and let them follow," Woolley said. "He doesn't need to think he's come over here to race. He probably didn't need it, but I gave him a little tranquilizer, just as a precaution."

Just then they appeared, Mine That Bird and Figueroa, with Woolley's brother Bill on the pony alongside. As they crossed the main course and stepped onto the Quarter Horse straightaway, where the All American would be run, the crowd began a happy rumble. When announcer Robert Fox introduced the Derby winner, a wave of cheers swept the stands from east to west. Figueroa walked his horse to the clubhouse turn, then stopped to face the fans.

"He knew it was all for him," said Figueroa after alighting from his horse, as Bill Woolley ponied Mine That Bird back to the barn. "I was worried he might come a little untrained, but he was having a pretty good time out there.

"I was driving over to the track today with Mark Allen," Figueroa added. "We stopped to pick up this little skinny guy who looked like he could use a ride. He gets in and says did we know Mine That Bird was going to parade today? Then his phone rings. It's his friend at the track, Leroy, who says Mine That Bird is on the track right now.

"Mark grabs the phone and says, 'Leroy, my name is Mark Allen, and I own half of Mine That Bird. If he's on the track right now somebody's gonna get a royal ass-whipping.' Mark gives the phone back to the guy, and his eyes were as wide could be. 'Leroy,' he says to the guy, 'I know you're up there in a 20-dollar seat. But where I'm sitting is the greatest thing ever happened to me.'"

It was hard not to get caught up in the moment. Here was the winner of the world's most famous horse race, breathing pure, thin, 7,000-foot mountain air, about as far from the traditional racing outposts of the game as possible. Mine That Bird t-shirts and souvenirs were selling well, and later, in the stands, Woolley sipped a beer as fans stopped to express their gratitude.

"I never thought I'd live to see a day like this one," said an old cowboy.

"Me neither," Woolley replied.

After Mine That Bird, the All American had a tough act to follow. Runnning Brook Gal did her best to out-Bird the Derby winner, though, with a flawless performance and a dominating, daylight win at the end of the 440 yards. It took the filly about 21 seconds to win the million-dollar pot, and the better part of an hour for her people to finally leave the most famous winner's circle in Quarter Horse racing. Owner Chad Richard was asked if he would trade her straight up for the Derby winner. He laughed.

"That was a great moment seeing him out there," Richard said. "But no, I don't think so."

Fair enough.