05/05/2009 11:00PM

Derby win plays differently in Alaska

Email

TUCSON, Ariz. - Saturday's Derby was a triumph for Central Casting. A script writer might have tried to replicate the implausible fairy-tale plot, but no one would have believed it and no one could have improved on the cast.

Trainer Chip Woolley was perfect in his role, and where in the world could you find another dancing, bouncing, exuberant elf like Calvin Borel? They don't call him Bo-Rail for nothing. Two Derbies along the shortest distance home should be enough, but there was no way an audience could tire of watching his inexpressible post-race joy. Seeing him in exultation blotted out the pain and pathos of past Derby disasters, so recently remembered.

In this joyful script, even the bad guys were gone, dispatched early by chance and fate.

The press coverage was superb, unless you lived in Alaska.

The only flaws in this improbably perfect fabric first showed up there. While headlines coast to coast on the mainland were ecstatic, those in our big state up north took a different tack.

The Anchorage Daily News headline on the big Derby story read, "Derby winner owned by Bill Allen's son."

A second Anchorage story began with "Life's sweet for Alaskan at center of corruption probes."

Newsminer.com led its story with "Horse owned by family of former Veco boss Bill Allen wins Derby."

Richard Mauer of McClatchy Newspapers, writing under an Anchorage dateline Saturday, appeared under a headline in Kentucky.com that read, "Mine That Bird tied to Alaska scandal."

The coverage in Fairbanks was more of the same.

So who is Bill Allen? What's the fuss? And why is he worth messing up a pure-joy story like Saturday's Derby?

Allen is, or was, a wealthy power broker in Alaska and the former owner of Veco, an oil-services company that he sold a year ago to a Denver-based international engineering company named CH2M Hill for $146 million. His son Mark and Mark's two sisters each received about $30 million from the sale.

Bill Allen was a central figure in Alaska's corruption scandal that reached as far as Sen. Ted Stevens. Newsminer.com called him "the government's chief witness against Stevens." Two years ago, Allen pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska politicians, but, in a plea deal for turning government witness, he won immunity from prosecution for Mark and other family members.

Mark is co-owner of Mine That Bird with his veterinarian neighbor Dr. Leonard Blach. The pair paid $400,000 for the gelding, and Blach said in post-Derby interviews that there was no haggling with the owner at the time, David Cotey, who had paid $9,500 for Mine the Bird as a yearling.

"They wanted $400,000. We paid it," Blach said.

Cotey said he wasn't unhappy with the deal. He said $400,000 was solid money for a gelding, and he was thrilled that his former charge won the Derby.

Post-Derby stories portrayed Allen and Blach as displaying "down-to-earth, 'aw shucks' natures when talking to media." Not exactly. Last July, when Blach was asked by the Anchorage Daily News during the clamor surrounding the scandal about his relationship with Allen, he said, "I see him once in a while. I just don't know too much about him, to tell the truth about it." But in the "aw shucks" post-Derby interview last Saturday, he told reporters, "We've been friends for years."

Mark Allen and Blach did not pay $400,000 on a blind hunch. Allen was a partner, along with his father and Sen. Stevens, in So Long Birdie, a half-brother to Mine That Bird's sire, Birdstone. So Long Birdie now stands at stud at Blach's Suerte Equine Clinic, near Mark Allen's Double Eagle ranch.

None of this detracts materially from the wonderful story of last week's victory. It does not lessen the amazing performance of either horse or jockey, and no wrongdoing has been suggested or alleged concerning the Mark Allen-Leonard Blach partnership.

But rehasing the coverage of Bill Allen and his testimony against Stevens is one more painful reminder that the spotlight of media is bright, far-reaching and frequently cruel. It certainly doesn't do much to illuminate the glorious events of last Saturday in Louisville, but in Alaska, at least, it casts a far different and unfortunately familiar oblique light on racing. Once more the sport winds up in shadows, even as it exults in one of racing's finest hours.

Correction:A previous version of this column misstated the relationship of the sire So Long Birdie to the Derby winner. So Long Birdie is a half-brother to Birdstone - Mine That Bird's sire - not to the Derby winner himself.