04/24/2014 2:22PM

Hovdey: Longshots looking for a Hollywood ending


If it is late April, it is the time of year when rank longshots and abject no-hopers come out of the woodwork to clutter the Kentucky Derby field with their unreasonable dreams. No need to point fingers. They know who they are. As long as there are 20 stalls available in the two starting gates at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, there will be horses involved who will be lucky to make the course, let alone have a shot at a piece of the prize.

Blame it on the Bird.

Mine That Bird, the winner of the 2009 Derby at odds of 50-1, has become the patron saint of delusional thinking. If this modest little gelding, just off the trailer from a 1,250-mile ride from deep in the wilds of New Mexico, can sidle into town as the last passenger on the Derby bus, trained by a guy on crutches who looks like the lost Earp brother, and ridden by a jock who scrapes more paint than Van Gogh, then shame on anyone else for not giving it a try. Right?

Besides, Mine That Bird is not the only horse lately to have won the Kentucky Derby at the magical odds of 50-1. In 2005, it was Giacomo nailing the roses at the same price, and if he had not gotten up in the last yards to win by a half-length, all the glory would have gone to runner-up Closing Argument, who was a ripe 71-1 in the wagering.

“I couldn’t blame them for the odds,” said Jerry Moss, who raced Giacomo with his wife, Ann. “The only race we’d won was a maiden race. But he was doing really good, and I thought we deserved to be there. It was obviously a thrill, a real life-changing experience. Annie and I are not the same people we were before winning the Derby.”

Odds aside, neither Giacomo nor Closing Argument supplied grist for the true dreamers. They were nice horses with a decent level of established form who were owned by well-heeled, familiar patrons and trained by respected horsemen. If anything at all, Giacomo and Closing Argument merely represented the unpredictable peaks and valleys of the gambling terrain that often exist in a race with 20 individual betting interests.

But for what happened when Mine That Bird won the 2009 Derby by six lengths, there was no sensible explanation. It was a moment that required creative interpretation, once all the tests had cleared. Salvador Dali to paint the official portrait. Professor Irwin Corey to call the race. Hunter S. Thompson to write it up while high as a kite.

“The lizard woman at the windows behind Section 216 reached across her counter and demanded I explain my winning $100 tickets on the Bird. ‘Are you insane?’ she shrieked, her split tongue tickling the tip of my nose. ‘How could you bet good money on a horse from New Zealand?’ ”

Now there is the movie. “50 to 1” is working its way across the country, perpetuating the Mine That Bird myth that anyone and any horse can win the Kentucky Derby. Jim Wilson, the mythmaker-in-chief, co-wrote, produced, and directed the film as a way to A) empty his bank account, B) pay tribute to the sport he loves, and C) vicariously live the dream of winning the Kentucky Derby, which, as an owner and breeder of Thoroughbreds, he does without effort.

Wilson was back home in Los Angeles this week after a six-week barnstorming tour across seven heartland states to promote the opening of “50 to 1.” For a guy who already knew what the view was like from the top – he co-produced the Oscar-winning “Dances With Wolves” with Kevin Costner – Wilson was inspired by the reaction to his very independent racing film.

“The greatest satisfaction for a filmmaker is for someone to come out of a theater and tell you, ‘I haven’t been to a film in 16 years, and thank god I went to see this movie,’ ” Wilson said.

And that really happened? With a horse-racing movie?

“Absolutely,” he replied. “When you get people saying they’ve re-engaged with the cinema because of ‘50 to 1,’ that gives you a satisfaction beyond the very difficult black-and-white financial side of trying to get an independent film out there in the face of the giant studio movies.”

Wilson said “50 to 1” will be playing in Louisville during Derby Week, and he has plans to be at the Derby itself May 3. In the meantime, he continues to be hands-on with a wider distribution while savoring his experiences on the road. He was asked if he thinks his telling of the Mine That Bird story has fueled the imagination of those who see themselves starring in a sequel.

“I think it does; are you kidding me?” Wilson said. “When we go to communities anywhere there are people in racing, their eyes just light up. ‘That’s why I’m in the game,’ they say. ‘That’s me up there.’ Because all of us who own horses have made fools of ourselves dreaming about a horse getting to a Derby, and most all of us fall short. But that dream is always there.”