05/15/2009 11:00PM

'Bird' not the word on all lips

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Chip Woolley (left) looks on as Mine That Bird gallops over the Pimlico track Thursday.

BALTIMORE - Chip Woolley, the trainer of Mine That Bird, was standing alongside the outer rail near the eighth pole at Pimlico Race Course on Thursday morning, watching the Kentucky Derby winner gallop twice around the track in preparation for the 134th Preakness Stakes here on Saturday. Only a handful of media members were with him, and then a few fans wandered over, seeking either an autograph from, or a picture with, Woolley.

An overzealous security guard approached the fans and asked if they "had badges." Badges? They had no stinking badges. So the security guard waved the fans away, leaving Woolley shaking his head and apologizing to the fans.

It was a metaphor for the past fortnight. Woolley has been completely unaffected by the Derby win. He was thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight when Mine That Bird scored a 50-1 upset in the Derby, yet has handled the sudden fame with an almost world-weary reserve.

"The first week was kind of overwhelming," Woolley said. "But now it's kind of enjoyable."

But, as evidenced by the few people with Woolley on Thursday morning, there's still an element of disbelief that seems to surround Mine That Bird. He has not been the focal point of this Preakness, even though he won the Derby in a blowout, by nearly seven lengths, rallying from last to first. Everybody's all agog over the filly Rachel Alexandra, the Kentucky Oaks winner. She is the morning-line favorite in the Preakness. Calvin Borel, who rode Mine That Bird in the Derby, has abandoned him to stick with Rachel Alexandra. And when Mine That Bird went to the track on Thursday morning, his entourage was as small as it was before the Derby. There's still plenty of room on the bandwagon.

Mine That Bird galloped on Thursday morning, as a light rain fell at Pimlico. The first time around, he went at a slow lope, but he picked it up noticeably the second time around, quickly skipping over the ground.

"I've never seen a horse get over the ground like this horse," Woolley said. Mine That Bird is preternaturally well-mannered. He does not even have a pony accompany him to and from the track, in stark contrast to most Preakness runners.

And when Woolley first arrives at the barn in the morning, he finds Mine That Bird at the front of his stall, eager to go.

"He can't wait to train," Woolley said.

But will Mine That Bird have fleeting fame - Andy Warhol's famous warning about 15 minutes - or will he move on to the June 6 Belmont Stakes with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978? That will be decided in a little less than two minutes on Saturday, in the second and, at 1 3/16 miles, shortest leg of the Triple Crown.

The Preakness was not even under consideration for Mine That Bird before the Derby. But after he won, plans to go straight to the Belmont were scrapped.

"As long as the Derby winner is 100 percent, he needs to run in the Preakness," Woolley said. "You need to try to keep the Triple Crown alive."

To do so, Mine That Bird, who ran past all 18 rivals at Churchill Downs, will have to beat 12 horses in the Preakness. He also will try to do it with a new rider. Mike Smith was chosen by Woolley to ride Mine That Bird after Borel opted for Rachel Alexandra.

"Mike's a patient rider," Woolley said Thursday morning. "He fits my horse."

Mine That Bird will start from post 2 in the Preakness. As in the Derby, Woolley wants Mine That Bird to be taken far back and make one late run. The Derby was run on an off track, and there is the possibility of wet weather for Saturday, too. The weather forecast calls for a 40-percent chance of rain, including scattered thunderstorms, on Saturday, with a high temperature of 80 degrees and increasing humidity.

The lack of attention surrounding Mine That Bird created a vacuum that has been amply filled by Rachel Alexandra, who is the first Oaks winner to contest the Preakness. She had to be supplemented to the race for $100,000, which raised the purse of the race to $1.1 million.

"Running against the filly, it's going to be a real exciting race," said Bob Baffert, the trainer of Pioneerof the Nile, the Derby runner-up. "This is going be as exciting as watching the Derby. We're all pumped up for this one."

Rachel Alexandra was breathtaking in the Oaks, winning by more than 20 lengths. Yet in the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra will have to overcome the outside post in the field of 13 while facing males for the first time. She is attempting to become the first filly to win the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Rachel Alexandra arrived at Pimlico on Wednesday afternoon and had an easy day on Thursday, merely walking the shed row of the stakes barn in the morning, and then schooling in the saddling paddock in the afternoon.

"That's all we wanted to do after getting in late yesterday," Scott Blasi, the top assistant to Rachel Alexandra's new trainer, Steve Asmussen, said Thursday morning. "She'll train tomorrow."

Led by Pioneerof the Nile, six horses who chased Mine That Bird in the Derby are back for a rematch. The others are Musket Man (third in the Derby), Papa Clem (fourth), General Quarters (10th), Friesan Fire (18th), and Flying Private (19th and last)

Gary Stute, trainer of Papa Clem, said Mine That Bird was "much the best" in the Derby.

"I was a little skeptical of his chances going in, but he was much the best," Stute said. "Maybe it was the off track, or the ride by Calvin Borel. It was a superior training job, and a superior ride."

Friesan Fire was favored in the Derby, but had a horrible trip. With three furlongs to go, his jockey, Gabriel Saez, sensing a lost cause, began easing up Friesan Fire, a decision trainer Larry Jones thinks might leave him fresh for the Preakness.

"Hopefully that will pay off in this race," Jones said.

Rachel Alexandra is the most prominent horse in the Preakness who skipped the Derby. Other newcomers with good recent form include Big Drama, a winner of 5 of 7 starts; Terrain, fourth in the Blue Grass; and Take the Points, fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.

Take the Points, who is currently at Belmont Park, is scheduled to arrive at Pimlico by van on Saturday morning, along with Musket Man (Monmouth Park) and Tone It Down (Laurel).

The Preakness is the 12th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:15 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Preakness is listed as 6:15 p.m., but is expected to be a few minutes later. The race will be televised live by NBC.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee