03/20/2014 1:34PM

Jay Hovdey: At '50 to 1' premiere, red carpet rolled out for Borel, Mine That Bird

TenFurlongs LLC
Christian Kane (left), as Mine That Bird owner Mark Allen, on the '50 to 1' set with Skeet Ulrich as trainer Chip Woolley and jockey Calvin Borel, who appears in the film as himself.

In its earliest incarnation, New Mexico’s 87-year-old KiMo Theatre was hailed as “America’s Foremost Indian Theatre,” or at least that’s what was proclaimed beneath its marquee. These days, there is opera, ballet, concerts, and all manner of movies, but there has been nothing at the KiMo – not even the Navajo language premiere of “Star Wars” – quite like what happened Wednesday night.

Then again, everything about the story behind the movie “50 to 1” has been a surprise. So, why not a Hollywood-style movie premiere in downtown Albuquerque, with a block-long stretch of old Route 66 cordoned off to accommodate more than 500 guests and gawkers, a giant tour bus plastered with movie photos and filled with cast and crew, and a horse van that hauled in the real star of the show, whose improbable victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby was the reason for all the fuss.

Since his retirement in 2011, Mine That Bird has been living a sweet life in Roswell, N.M., receiving visitors and making the occasional special appearance. When he walked off his Turnbow trailer at around 5:30 Wednesday afternoon – the same trailer that carried him from Sunland Park to Churchill Downs five years ago this spring – and entered a pipe corral set up in front of the KiMo box office, the growing crowd oohed and ahhed and swarmed around the little bay gelding as if George Clooney was on display in a sheepskin halter and gold-plated shank.

Then, about a half-hour later, the movie’s barnstorming tour bus pulled in, and out hopped Calvin Borel, the Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Derby winner who plays himself in the film. The sight of actors Christian Kane, Todd Lowe, and Skeet Ulrich did not have quite the same effect – okay, maybe Christian Kane – and the murmurs were unmistakable as they rippled through the crowd.

“Where’s Calvin?”

“There’s Calvin!”

“Oh, look, he’s kissing the horse.”

In among the sea of black Stetsons – trademark gear for the Mine That Bird posse – was a bare-headed Jim Wilson, the horse owner and Hollywood heavyweight who in 1991 stood before the Motion Picture Academy and an international audience of millions to accept a Best Picture Oscar as the producer of “Dances with Wolves.”

On this night, Wilson was light-years away from such a giddy scene, alone at a podium beneath the KiMo’s proscenium decorated with Native American images. He introduced “50 to 1” as a movie rejected by Hollywood studios, an uphill climb from the start, but a climb he would make again in a heartbeat.

“The story got into my gut,” Wilson said. “I had to make this movie.”

So, he did. Wilson produced, directed, and co-wrote the script with his partner, Faith Conroy, and is now promoting and distributing “50 to 1” with a rollout across the same landscape traveled by Mine That Bird during his odyssey of 2009.

Refreshingly, “50 to 1” does not pretend to be anything but a friendly, entertaining telling of a unique sports story that seized national attention for a thrilling five-week stretch of 2009. For many in the audience, there was the feel of a beautifully photographed home movie.

“Hey,” said a fellow in the back, “that’s Chip’s truck.”

Of course, for the general public, everything interesting was learned after the fact of Mine That Bird’s 50-to-1 stunner in the Derby, in which he came from last place under Borel’s daring, rail-skimming ride. Overnight, trainer Chip Woolley and owners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach became figures in some wild, Southwestern fairy tale.

Watching “50 to 1” with a New Mexico audience had to be something like watching “Rocky” in Philadelphia, or “Gone With the Wind” in Atlanta. Wilson put the NBC footage of the climactic race to vigorous use, cutting it to the rhythms of a feature film, complete with character reactions and soaring music. By the time Borel and Mine That Bird hit the wire, the crowd was howling, and the KiMo was rocking.

Borel and his wife, Lisa, were seeing the movie for the first time. Calvin, who tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, was clearly moved.

“It brought back some awful-good memories,” he said.

As for his performance, Borel deferred to the critics and allowed that Gary Stevens is still the real jockey-actor in the game. Much of his part was played for laughs, both subtle and broad, including a segment during which the rider lost a series of potential Derby mounts in the days leading up to the ’09 race intercut with a montage of minor disasters that included everything but stepping on a rake. Then, he stepped on a rake.

“That’s just the kind of thing he might do,” Lisa said.

“The rake was plastic,” Calvin added.

Afterward, as the crowd crammed into the KiMo’s lobby, Doc Blach was off to one side and in a reflective mood. William Devane’s portrayal of the no-nonsense horse vet is rivaled in the film only by Kane’s flamboyant turn as the rich, rowdy Allen.

“The idea of anybody ever playing me in a movie was kind of crazy,” Blach said. “But I’m glad it got made, and I know it wasn’t easy.

“In fact,” he added, “it might have been more of a longshot than Mine That Bird winning the Derby.”