05/07/2009 11:00PM

Mine That Bird a longshot since birth

Barbara D. Livingston
The first foal out of the unraced mare Mining My Own (above) was Mine That Bird, whose 50-1 Derby win shocked his breeders as much as anyone else.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Peter Lamantia, co-breeder of Mine That Bird, watched the Kentucky Derby from home in Toronto last Saturday. He didn't harbor any real hopes the gelding would win, but he invited a handful of friends over to watch the race.

One of the party had a Woodbine betting account and said she would bet $100 on Mine That Bird.

"I said, 'We're not betting $100. We're not throwing money away unnecessarily,' " Lamantia, 65, said. "So she said, 'Let's bet $10 across.' I told her, 'We're not betting $10 across.' We finally bet $15: five to win, place, and show. The horse brought us back $450. I cost her $5,000. Not for the life of me did I think he could win."

Mine That Bird's journey from $9,500 yearling to 50-1 Kentucky Derby winner was an unlikely one that has made unexpected winners of his many connections: breeders Phil and Judy Needham, Bill Betz, Peter Lamantia, and Jim Blackburn, and owners Mike Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach.

All acknowledge they didn't expect Mine That Bird to win.

"I couldn't figure the race out," breeder Blackburn, 76, said. "My question was, Is he just an off-track horse? Is he a late-developer? I hope he's just maturing and getting better. Racing needed this. I'd rather see a $9,500 horse win than a $3.7 million horse win."

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Mine That Bird was foaled at the Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds farm on Mt. Horeb Pike, north of Lexington. His breeders have known each other for decades. Phil and Judy Needham and Bill Betz had a commercial breeding operation, Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds, for 20 years before parting company in late 2008. Lamantia and Chicagoan Jim Blackburn, who owns the Assurance Agency insurance brokerage, are longtime partners of Needham and Betz in the breeding business.

A late-season arrival on May 10, Mine That Bird was the first foal for his dam, the unraced Smart Strike mare Mining My Own. He was also a member of his sire Birdstone's first crop. Birdstone, a three-time Grade 1 winner, was most famous as the horse that spoiled Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, a distinction that meant little in the commercial bloodstock market, except that Birdstone's progeny might be able to go a distance.

Mining My Own was the product of a female family that produced talent and size but also had had soundness problems.

"Mining My Own had a lot of quality at the track and showed a lot of promise," said Betz, 51, who planned the mating that produced Mine That Bird. "But one day we got a call that she had hurt herself and wasn't going to be able to continue to train. When planning the mating, knowing that family history, I wanted to breed her to something that didn't dilute her strengths but strengthened her weaknesses. I wanted to breed her to a horse that was sound, that had quality, and that wasn't a massive horse."

With a sire and a dam that were both unproven in the breeding world, Mine That Bird was something of an unknown quantity. But Judy Needham assessed him fairly favorably.

"He had a cute little head and he was not real big," she said. "He toed out quite a bit in his right front leg, which, you know, a lot of foals aren't perfect when they're born. But they go through changes and they can straighten up, so we were pretty encouraged."

She also liked Mine That Bird's attitude.

Barbara D. Livingston
Mine That Bird "had a cute little head and was not real big," said co-breeder Judy Needham. "He toed out quite a bit."

"What I remember most about him is, when he was a foal, he was always feisty, getting into mischief, and playing," she said. "Very active, like my boys when they were little. When we separated him from the other yearlings, like we do three months before the sale, I'd look out sometimes and he'd be running little laps around his paddock, like he was training himself."

Blacksmith Victor Camp did some corrective trimming to lessen Mine That Bird's toeing-out problem, and the colt grew into a presentable product for Fasig-Tipton's October yearling auction in Kentucky. But he wasn't perfect. A late foal, he needed some maturing. He still toed out. His dam was unraced, something that might make buyers question her soundness. And his sire wasn't as hot as some others that year.

Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds, Lamantia, and Blackburn consigned Mine That Bird to the October yearling sale through the Highclere agency's consignment, where Canadian trainer Dave Cotey spotted him. Cotey was looking for inexpensive but promising prospects, and the partners' Birdstone colt impressed him as a potentially useful runner. Cotey bought him for $9,500.

"He wasn't a good sales horse because he toed out more than you'd like to see, and he was small," Phil Needham, 67, explained.

"We thought he was an athletic horse with a few conformational things that some people wouldn't like," Judy Needham said. "But we thought if someone bought him and trained him to race, he had a pretty good chance."

Cotey, in fact, did just that. Training Mine That Bird for a partnership that included himself, Derek Ball, and Hugh Galbraith, Cotey developed the gelding into Canada's juvenile champion for 2008. He also had had the colt gelded, reportedly because Mine That Bird was showing too much interest in the neighborhood fillies, a distraction from training.

Mine That Bird first came to Stuart Angus's attention in the fall of 2008 when a colleague mentioned he might be on the market privately. Angus was in his third year as a bloodstock and sales adviser at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., where hundreds of potential public and private sales horses come across his desk each year.

"Nobody was really spending any money then, and I kind of had him on the back burner," Angus said. "He looked like a real honest horse with a lot of heart."

So when bloodstock agent Keith Crupper called Angus looking for a good horse on behalf of Mike Allen's Double Eagle Ranch and Dr. Leonard Blach's Buena Suerte Equine, Angus pitched Mine That Bird.

"Keith said they wanted an Oaks filly, and I said, 'Heck, I think I might have a Derby horse,' and that's the god's honest truth," Angus said.

Cotey was asking $400,000 for his champion.

"There was no haggling," Mark Allen, 56, said. "They wanted $400,000, and we paid it."

Despite Angus's enthusiastic sales pitch, Allen and Blach didn't have Derby pretensions for their new acquisition. But Mine That Bird did look like a racehorse they could have some fun with.

Anne M. Eberhardt
Phil Needham (left) and Bill Betz were also partners in breeding Mine That Bird.

"In New Mexico, since we got the slots there's been a little more opportunity for Thoroughbreds," Blach, a 74-year-old veterinarian, said. "We looked at all of Mine That Bird's races and his ability to run, and we looked at his trainers and talked to them, and we talked to [previous jockey] Chantal Sutherland. We thought he was what we were looking for."

Allen and Blach have been friends for a long time and have been involved in horse racing and breeding together a number of times, according to Blach. Both men own ranches in Roswell, N.M., and have strong ties to the Quarter Horse racing world. Both had a fond desire to win that sport's crown jewel, the All-American Futurity, but hadn't done it in three decades of trying. And both had some Thoroughbred holdings that they wanted to increase now that slot-machine revenue was helping make Thoroughbred breeding and racing more profitable. As luck would have it, one of the Thoroughbred stallions Blach stands at his ranch, So Long Birdie, is a full brother to Birdstone - a fact that made Mine That Bird all the more appealing to him.

Allen's racing history had been interrupted by an Alaskan sojourn that involved him in a high-profile political scandal.

Allen's father, Bill, was the founder of VECO, an oil services company that held contracts for Alaskan projects including the clean-up of the Valdez oil spill in 1989; Mark Allen was a company director. Bill Allen pleaded guilty in 2007 in a major Alaskan public corruption scandal, but, as part of a plea deal, won immunity for Mark and other family members from federal criminal charges, according to news reports. VECO is now defunct after a 2007 sale to the engineering and construction firm CH2M HILL.

"I've known Mark for 30 years," said Ralph Kinder, a former bloodstock agent and furniture store owner who now serves as general manager for Allen's Double Eagle Ranch. "I've bought and sold horses for him. When he left to go to Alaska in the late '80s or early '90s, he had some of the best broodmares in the Quarter Horse world. He called me up and said, 'I've got to be gone in 30 days. Get rid of my horses.'

"I didn't see him for years. At the races one day at Ruidoso three years ago, he comes up and tells me he bought a place in Roswell and needs some help. He wanted to buy some mares, and it kind of grew from there.

"Truthfully, I thought we had a shot for second or third with Calvin riding him, because he's not afraid of that rail," Kinder said. "He needed a rider like Calvin. But I never dreamed he would beat 'em by seven lengths."

We all know what happened next. But very few, including Mine That Bird's breeders, foresaw it.

"We were as shocked as everybody else was," said Betz.

Angus and others confessed they thought he might run midpack. Phil Needham was so ambivalent about the gelding's chances that he skipped the Derby in favor of a bicycle race, which, incidentally, he won. He watched the Derby in a sports bar with Bena Halecky, a cycling partner.

Needham and Halecky had a special reason to celebrate. When Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds and partners sold Mining My Own at the 2008 Keeneland January sale, Needham bought her for a paltry $8,000. Halecky bought in for half. The 8-year-old mare now has an Even the Score colt and is pregnant to Tapit.

Betz watched from home in Lexington. "If I'd had it to do over again, I would have gone to Louisville," he said.

Lamantia is leaning toward not attending the Preakness on May 16. He's already invited the same group of friends over to his Toronto home for another race-day party. This time, he won't talk anyone out of any wagers, but otherwise, he says, "I really don't want to fool with the karma."