04/27/2011 2:29PM

Kentucky Derby heroes welcomed by hometown


Blame it on the Bird.

Ever since that Louisville afternoon in 2009 when Mine That Bird turned the Kentucky Derby upside down, the syndrome has had a name, or at least a patron saint.

Since that day, it seems nearly everyone waking up with a 3-year-old in the barn or the backyard thinks they can win the Kentucky Derby. And let’s face it, given Mine That Bird’s tale, it’s hard to blame anyone believing they can tap into the same fantasy.

It wasn’t that the Bird paid off at 50-1, or that he scattered the opposition to win by nearly seven lengths, or that he was owned and trained by people never before remotely associated with the Kentucky Derby, although he was ridden by Calvin Borel. But then, isn’t every Derby winner?

No, it was the bald fact that Mine That Bird, despite his status as reigning Canadian 2-year-old champ as 2009 dawned, was an absolute Derby afterthought, a flyer, a lark, a shot in the dark who would not have been in the race at all were it not for a phone call from someone at Churchill Downs that hustled his participation.

The Bird Bunch – owners Leonard Blach and Mark Allen, along with trainer Chip Woolley – were still licking their wounds over Mine That Bird’s disappointing finishes in a couple of stakes at Sunland Park when the call came informing there was a place in the Derby gate with Bird’s name on it. All he had to do was show up and pay the fees.

This time two years ago, Mine That Bird was on the road from New Mexico to Louisville, being hauled in a spiffy new trailer by his half-crippled trainer, who had shattered his lower leg in a motorcycle accident a month or so before. They arrived with the lowest possible expectations and left the toast of the town – Woolley on crutches, Allen decked out like one of the lost Earp brothers, and the genial Dr. Blach, a respected New Mexico veterinarian.

Reached at his clinic near the town of Roswell, Blach was asked if all the current Derby mania hits home.

“It really does,” Blach said. “And we had a really nice colt this year, too. An Afleet Alex, we named Here Again. We thought he was capable of winning a race like the Borderland at Sunland and being competitive in the Sunland Derby. But he banged a tendon and we had to back off. He should be ready again this summer.”

As for being ready, maybe it’s just as well the Bird Bunch is not heading back to Churchill Downs right away. The mindset that any horse from left field can win was already taking hold after a cluster earlier in the decade that included a New York gelding (Funny Cide), a Philadelphia Park freak (Smarty Jones), and a colt who had kept himself a pretty good secret in California (Giacomo).

Nothing, though, could explain Mine That Bird’s explosive dominance of the 135th Derby, at least by conventional postrace logic. There was some comfort when he ran his race again in the Preakness and nearly caught Rachel Alexandra, and then turned in another brave performance in the Belmont Stakes to finish third. But after that it was all like the Derby was a dream.

In fact, Mine That Bird never won again. After the 2009 Triple Crown was finished, he lost in West Virginia and then twice in California. In 2010 he was transferred from Woolley’s care to the barn of Wayne Lukas, with no luck as a 4-year-old. Last November, Mine That Bird was paraded one final time in a retirement ceremony at Churchill Downs, then sent home to New Mexico.

According to Blach, Mine That Bird seems to be a happy camper these days. He is turned out every morning in a big grass paddock at Allen’s Double Eagle Ranch, just outside Roswell. He’s got horses to eyeball in neighboring paddocks, his own sandy playpen in which to roll to his heart’s content, and a 40-inch inflated “JollyBall” to head-butt and chase around.

“He’s settling down really good now,” Blach said. “I see him near about every day. He’s grown some, filled out. We haven’t really done anything with him yet, but maybe this fall we’re going to try to make a pony horse out of him. We’ve got a little training track here, so we might let him pony a few horses out there to see how he likes it, give him a job to do.”

Horses do need jobs. That is the nature of the breed, even the hot-wired Thoroughbred. Figuring Mine That Bird could live another 20 years or more, it’s good to know that at least he might be something other than a lawn ornament.

“He gets his share of visitors, too,” Blach said. “Not every day but three or four times a week. People come by who live here in town or ‘round about who haven’t seen him yet, or who have friends come to visit. And people going to and from the racetracks here in New Mexico will stop by, even if they’ve seen him before.”

Blach was asked where he and Allen display their Kentucky Derby trophy, a golden bauble worth an estimated $90,000.

“It’s at the bank,” Blach replied.

Of course, complete with armed guards, in a safety deposit vault no doubt.

“No,” Blach corrected, “it’s right there behind the tellers’ counter at the Valley of Commerce Bank.”

That would be the West Second Street branch in Roswell.

“It’s pretty cool,” Blach added. “They made whole wall display for the trophy and all the Derby paraphernalia. Got a security camera on it and everything.”

There is room for more in that display case, Blach noted.

“We’ve got the fever,” Blach conceded. “We’re trying every year to have a horse good enough to get back to the Derby. I don’t know if we’ll win another one, but we’ll be in one, that’s for sure.”