10/07/2009 11:00PM

Mine That Bird and company rise with a region

Barbara D. Livingston
Each of New Mexico's five Thoroughbred tracks has slot machines. The resulting rise in purses helped Chip Woolley (below), who trains Mine That Bird (above), to convince his older brother to return to the racing business.

There are a lot of last places you would ever expect to see a Kentucky Derby ring. One of them has to be Jorge's Cafe on West U.S. Highway 70 in the town of Ruidoso Downs, high in the mountains of New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest. But there it was, all diamond-dotted black onyx, inlaid with delicate golden spires and attached to the right hand Chip Woolley was using to mop up the last of his huevos rancheros with a corn tortilla.

"After I got divorced I swore I'd never wear a ring again," Woolley said, sipping an iced tea. "Until this one came along."

Maybe it wasn't so unusual after all, a ring like that in this part of the world. For one thing, Ruidoso Downs has been home for half a century to the All American Futurity for Quarter Horses, a race worth a million dollars even before the Thoroughbred game came up with such a number. Win the All American and you've earned Southwestern bragging rights the rest of your life.

Barbara D. Livingston

The Kentucky Derby, though, is a little tougher to put into context. Since that day last May when, in Woolley's words, "some dumbass from New Mexico just won the Kentucky Derby," the legend of Mine That Bird and his people has grown, stanza by stanza. There was the verse about Woolley and his all-around hand, Charlie Figueroa, hauling Mine That Bird from Sunland Park, hard by the Mexican border, through Dallas and on to Louisville to get ready for an unthinkable swing at the Derby. They sang of Woolley's banged up right leg that was shattered in a Harley wreck and put him on crutches through the whole Triple Crown. And the chorus repeated the refrain that Mine That Bird was a one-race fluke of all flukes, until he gave Rachel Alexandra all she could handle in the Preakness Stakes two weeks after the Derby.

New Mexico has never been known for its Thoroughbred racing. And yet, the state hardly can be dismissed as some cultural backwater, isolated from the American mainstream. Boasting a geography that ranges from ski slopes to white sands, New Mexico has been home to the rich, the famous, and the artistically inclined, who cluster around such elevated havens as Santa Fe, Taos and the village of Ruidoso, just down the road from Jorge's Cafe.

"New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had," wrote the English novelist D.H. Lawrence. "In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico, one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the old world gave way to the new."

The artist Georgia O'Keefe agreed.

"As soon as I saw it, that was my country," O'Keefe said. "I'd never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. There's something that's in the air, just different. The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different. I shouldn't say too much about this because other people may get interested, and I don't want them interested."

Too late. New Mexico has long been a popular tourist destination. And now that New Mexico is home to a Kentucky Derby winner and a Kentucky Derby ring, along with its many other attractions, the rest of the country might start paying heed to its Thoroughbred population as well.

Putting New Mexico in the spotlight

Bill Woolley spent most of the last quarter century wondering when he'd go back to racing in New Mexico, and what it would be like when he got there.

Back in the 1980s, when Woolley and his younger brother Chip hauled their horses the length and breadth of America's fifth largest state - running them at places like San Juan Downs, La Mesa Park, and Sunland Park - it was mostly hand to mouth and day by day. The tracks were nothing to write home about. Purses didn't pay for a whole lot more than feed and hay. Other than a couple of high-rolling stables, everybody was pretty much in the same leaky boat.

"When I left, all the racetracks were struggling," said Bill, who went back home to the Texas panhandle to work for a cattle feed operation and raise his children. "Me and Chip first came to the racetrack together as kids, back when the bottom for purses was at $600. Now the people who've been in the business and seen it through all these years are finally getting to see some profit."

The saga of the Woolley brothers, now 48 and 45, traces straight to the heart of the story of New Mexico racing. Through the last part of the 20th century, horse racing in the Land of Enchantment was a tough grind. Except for the large poker pots accumulated by a few Quarter Horse futurities and their pressure-packed trials, the state had no particular national profile. Even in the region, New Mexico ranked behind both Colorado and Arizona in terms of purse opportunities.

"I love the racehorse industry, and I always intended to come back," Bill said. "Chip asked me three or four times through the years to come work for him. But I told him I couldn't do it till my kids got out of school. Then a year or so ago, when Chip picked up Mark Allen and the Double Eagle horses, he called me again, 'cause he was spending a lot more time on the road running here and there in $50,000 and $75,000 stakes, and he needed somebody to stay with the barn. The kids were grown, so I dropped everything. I was not gonna refuse this time."

The elder Woolley got his timing right. Over the last decade, a cluster of occurrences put New Mexico dramatically on the racing map:

In 1999, the first slot machines were installed at existing New Mexico racetracks, and in less than a year the average purse nearly doubled, from $5,712 in 1999 to $9,435 in 2000. By 2004, the average Thoroughbred purse was nearly $15,000, and rising.

In 2003, WinStar Farm of Kentucky and Sunland Park owner Stan Fulton teamed to offer a $500,000 purse for the WinStar Sunland Park Derby, effectively putting the race on the springtime schedule of major stables in California and points east.

In October of 2008, at the new, casino-driven Zia Park racetrack in the southeastern New Mexico town of Hobbs, the New Mexico-bred mare Peppers Pride won her 17th race without a defeat to break the mark for consecutive victories set by Citation, Cigar, Mister Frisky, and Hallowed Dreams. Peppers Pride retired with a 19-0 record, all of it in New Mexico, and was bred to Tiznow, who stands at WinStar Farm.

Then, in May of 2009, New Mexico rocked the racing world with the victory of Mine That Bird in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. Owned by a longtime New Mexico veterinarian Leonard Blach and Roswell rancher Mark Allen, Mine That Bird blew the doors off the Derby with a 6 3/4-length victory at Churchill Downs. Everyone already knew his jockey, the Kentucky favorite Calvin Borel, but nobody had ever heard of his trainer, Bennie L. Woolley Jr., the man everyone back home knew as Chip.

After frustrating third-place finishes in the Belmont Stakes and West Virginia Derby, the economically built gelding kept putting New Mexico in the news. Mine That Bird recovered from the throat surgery that kept him out of the Travers, then made a sentimental journey to Ruidoso Downs to lead the parade to the post for the All American Futurity on Labor Day. Two weeks later, he was on the road again, this time headed to California for the ultimate goal of the Breeders' Cup Classic, to be run at Santa Anita on Nov. 7.

"They tried to get me on the road with them during the Triple Crown deal, but it seemed like every weekend we had horses running back here," Bill Woolley said. "Finally I said, 'I'll tell you what - y'all just make sure I get to the Breeders' Cup, and I'll stay home for now.' Anyway, that's the plan."

Plans don't figure too much into how a cowboy does business. At least, that's what Hall of Famer and two-time Derby winner Carl Nafzger remembers from his days when he trained on the New Mexico circuit.

"They are very good horsemen, but they can't necessarily tell you why they did what they did," Nafzger said. "For them the horse was not a means to glory. It was a means to a living, and you take care of something that makes you a living. An old vet back there told me, 'You take care of the horse and the horse will take care of you.'

"I was a bad cowboy," Nafzger went on. "I couldn't quite get into the cowboy culture when it came to, 'Aw, hell, let the ol' cow go. We'll catch him tomorrow.' I loved the independence, but I wanted more control of my environment."

Woolley, of Dahlhart, and Nafzger, from Plainview, grew up in Texas towns only a few hours apart, just the other side of the New Mexico state line.

"I wanted to meet Chip," Nafzger said, which he did, in the immediate wake of the Derby. "I wanted to see if he was what I was. I doubted Chip's horsemanship a little at first, only from what I'd read. But it was nothing unusual, hauling your own horses, doing your own work. Then I watched him, and got to knowin' him a little, and you could really tell he had a sense of horse about him. And there was none of that, 'I did this. I did that.' "

One thing Woolley would love to do is emulate Nafzger, the last man to win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic with the same horse in the same year - Unbridled in 1990.

"Chip Woolley got my respect the first night we had dinner," Nafzger added. "He wasn't worried about anything. He was like, 'If you want to make me into some kind of hero, that's fine. But I'm not going out of my way to change anything to be that hero for you. I'll ride my horse.'"

Doing what's best for the Bird

On the morning after his All American parade, Woolley's horse was grazing on a wild patch of Bermuda grass outside Barn 37 on the Ruidoso Downs backstretch as his crew loaded equipment for the ship to Zia Park. The rich meet in eastern New Mexico would be opening in a few days.

Mine That Bird is really out of Kentucky, by way of Canada, where he was 2-year-old champion of 2008 and then bought for $400,000 by Allen and Blach. But then, a lot of New Mexico celebrities are from somewhere else, so nobody really cared. As Mine That Bird grazed, with stablehand George Smith at the shank, Blach admired his Derby winner with a critical eye, starting with his front legs.

"The way he turns out, you'd think he'd get a little cross-firing," Blach said. "But he's never hit himself. And we have never touched a joint. Never had to inject anything."

They did go into his throat with an arthroscopic procedure to relieve an entrapped epiglottis, which is why Mine That Bird has not raced since Aug. 1.

"We had no clue he had any problem," Blach said. "I think Chip caught it real early. That Monday he noticed him coughing a little bit. That was the first sign."

The surgery went off without a hitch, but the timing was too close for Mine That Bird to make the Aug. 29 Travers. In his absence, Summer Bird won the race to take temporary control of the 3-year-old male division.

"I think the way the race came up he would have won if he'd been at his best," Blach said. "If we'd have run and won, it would have been great, but it might have taken a whole lot out of him. If we'd have run him and he'd been third, or fourth, or somewhere back there, the press would have said, 'Those greedy bastards.' Our decision was based on how the horse was doing. But the game didn't need that kind of bad PR.

"Anyway, for me and Mark, it's not about money," Blach added. "It's about that horse. Sometimes I just can't believe what he's done for us. I'll be sitting on the commode, or maybe sitting in church, and all of a sudden it will dawn on me what happened. If we treat him right, we can have fun with him a long time."

Chip Woolley has had about as much fun as a man can have spending most of the year on antibiotics and crutches. His broken leg, sustained in February, was supposed to get plenty of rest. Instead infection set in, mostly because Woolley's constant attention to the details of taking a horse through the Triple Crown seemed to take priority.

"I never missed a day and I never missed a minute," Woolley said, shrugging off the inconvenience. "I never let it get in the way."

At 6-foot-3, Woolley was a fit 170 pounds last winter when Mine That Bird came into his Sunland Park barn. After a lifetime of rodeo and racetrack, throwing a leg over a Canadian juvenile champion was no big deal.

"When I first saw him at Woodbine, and saw how crooked-legged he was, I really had to step back and look at him more," Woolley recalled. "It all came down to the way he moved. When he does, he looks as perfect as you please. I galloped him quite a few times before I got hurt, and he just barely touched the ground."

By September, Woolley had his leg infection under control and was able to put about a hundred pounds of weight on the right foot. He continues to move as fast on a leg and a half as most people do on two.

"The doctors like the way the ankle is looking, but the bone above it still's got some healing to do," he said.

As Derby winning images go, Woolley's crutches rank right up there with Charlie Whittingham's dome, D. Wayne's shades, and Bob Baffert's white hair. The Kentucky Derby Museum asked Woolley to donate them once he's back on both feet. He is more than happy to comply.

"I'll be awful glad when I'm off 'em," Woolley said. "But I'll tell you what. After the Derby, showing up anywhere with these crutches sure opened a lot of doors."

Kentucky Derby-winning trainers without high recognition tend to get typecast right away, for better or worse. John Servis became Superfan, Barclay Tagg the Grouch, John Shirreffs the Enigma. Plain-spoken and modest, Woolley had Classic Cowboy written all over him. But he proved to be more than just a black Stetson, a belt buckle, and a drooping moustache. On his way to becoming a full-blown media darling, Woolley was exposed as a dedicated practitioner of the training craft who had given the business considerable thought, even from his attention-deprived New Mexico outpost.

"If you don't try to be more than you are, I think people respond to it," Woolley said. "You don't ever have to watch what you say, 'cause you've always told the truth."

Woolley has had a few nibbles from potential new clients. But talk is cheap, and the Double Eagle Ranch horses of Mark Allen remain the linchpin of his operation. Whether Woolley someday outgrows New Mexico remains to be seen.

If he does, he would be following the path blazed by horsemen like Nafzger, South Dakota's Bill Mott, and Nebraska's John Nerud, all of them raised on hard ground in the unsparing heart of the continent. If he doesn't, it probably will be because Woolley's New Mexico, unlike Nafzger's, has become a respectable player at the Thoroughbred racing table, a place you'd hesitate to leave.

"Out here we get to run for really good money about seven months," Woolley said. "The rest of the year it's just kind of okay. But it's growing. There's people building some real nice farms and training centers.

"We've still got a ways to go with Bird this year, though, before I can think of anything else," Woolley added. "It took few days for the Derby to sink in, but once it did, it's been nothing but fun. I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. Hopefully, we'll have another horse down the road like him. And if we don't, we can always say we had this one."

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* plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes