05/04/2009 12:00AM

Improbable winner has something to prove


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Thanks to the late, renowned play-by-play announcer Jack Buck, the very first thing that came to mind after Saturday's Kentucky Derby was, "I don't believe what I just saw!"

Buck's famous call came, of course, at the conclusion of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. It was elicited when Kirk Gibson dragged himself off a training table to go out and club a most improbable game-winning pinch-hit two-run home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers which for all intents and purposes put the heavily favored Oakland A's to sleep for the rest of that Series.

Buck's call fits perfectly here, on a few levels. Gibson was hobbled by one very bad leg and another that was only marginally better. Considering his condition, he had absolutely no business doing what he did. Neither did the Mine That Bird. His odds of 50-1 only begins to suggest just how ridiculously improbable a victory from him was. And his trainer, Chip Woolley, navigated Churchill Downs on one leg and crutches, hobbled by injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.

Now, even with a couple of days to process what happened in this Kentucky Derby, I freely admit I still have trouble making sense of what transpired. And I know I'm not alone in that. So Mine That Bird was champion 2-year-old male in Canada last year. So what? The Beyer Figures he earned in his three stakes wins at Woodbine were 78, 77, and 76. You don't have to look very hard for even 2-year-old maiden claimers who run faster than that.

After being purchased privately for top dollar for a gelding ($400,000) following his win in the Grade 3 Grey Stakes, the race that provided him with the graded earnings he needed to get into the Derby, Mine That Bird went west. He started in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, with Dick Mandella listed as trainer, and promptly finished last of 12.

Four months later, Mine That Bird reappeared at Sunland Park in New Mexico with Woolley his new teacher. Woolley had won with only 1 of 32 starters this year going into the Derby. And with no disrespect intended toward Sunland Park, Mine That Bird couldn't even win his two starts there. But he won the Kentucky Derby.

Right here, let's get real and say that if the Kentucky Derby didn't annually feature the some of the wackiest win betting you will ever see, Mine That Bird would have, and should have, been twice his 50-1 odds. And yet, if winning the Derby with this kind of profile isn't tough enough for you to get your head around, consider that Mine That Bird didn't merely win, he obliterated his field. I mean, Pioneerof the Nile, winner of four straight stakes, the most recent the prestigious Santa Anita Derby, turned for home in position to make this Kentucky Derby his. And Mine That Bird ran by him like he was absolutely nothing.

How did this happen? Ruling out an answer that would send this sport into a devastating tailspin, it seems there are three possible explanations for Mine That Bird's form reversal. They are:

The sloppy track. Mine That Bird had never run on an off track before, so maybe he's some sort of super mutant slop freak who improved 20 lengths on the going he caught Saturday.

Another theory has it that Mine That Bird had never been allowed to drop way back early and make one big run before Saturday, and maybe that's the way he has wanted to run all along. This might lead us in the right direction. A few contenders in the Derby who figured to come from off the pace were much closer to the lead than expected. Much was made of how Pioneerof the Nile would improve with a real pace to close into. Well, he got a legitimate pace to run at, and what happened? He was right on top of it. Deep closer Hold Me Back made a silly, premature move down the backstretch. Even Dunkirk was closer early than anticipated, perhaps thrown off his game and thrown into the bridle by a stumbling start and early bumping.

And, of course, the other potential explanation is that this result was simply a fluke. No wag can ever take away what Mine That Bird did Saturday. But while it may be harsh, Mine That Bird's performance Saturday stands in such stark contrast to how he performed in eight previous career starts that the onus is on him to prove his Kentucky Derby wasn't an aberration.

Some other Derby weekend impressions:

* As much as remembering this Derby for its shocking result, I'll always remember this one as the "Defection Derby." Four weeks out, we lost The Pamplemouse. Three weeks out, we lost Old Fashioned. Last Monday we lost Quality Road, on Tuesday it was Square Eddie, on Wednesday out went Win Willy, and of course I Want Revenge on Derby morning. I can't recall a recent Derby that lost that much quality in the last month because of injury.

* Jeff Mullins, trainer of I Want Revenge, was, as we all know, the principal character in the oral-syringe fiasco at Aqueduct on Wood Memorial Day. Jimmy Jerkens, trainer of Quality Road, failed to reveal Quality Road's first quarter crack while that colt was being bet down to favoritism during Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Maybe there really is karma.

* Rachel Alexandra was so brilliant - again - in Friday's Kentucky Oaks that it's appropriate to ask: How does she stack up against recent 3-year-old filly champions, even if Rachel Alexandra technically isn't yet a champion? Off what she's done so far this year, Rachel Alexandra might be the best 3-year-old filly since Go for Wand, which says a lot, because Go for Wand was the best 3-year-old filly since the mighty Ruffian.