06/08/2009 11:00PM

More classic tales to tell

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Barbara D. Livingston
Tim Ice holds aloft the winner's trophy after sending Summer Bird out to his Belmont victory.

Let's face it. The 2009 classic season was played for underdog drama and good-hearted laughs, along with a brief interlude of genuflection. It also will be remembered as the moment that Thoroughbred racing, like the NFL, attempted at least a suggestion of parity.

Hal Wiggins, 66 and unbeknownst to anyone outside the Midwestern corridor, crowned his quiet, steady career with Rachel Alexandra's 20 1/4-length win in the Kentucky Oaks. She was quickly sold, but Wiggins was given and deserved all the credit in the world for her victory 10 days later in the Preakness by her new trainer, Steve Asmussen.

Barbara D. Livingston
Chip Woolley comes to terms with Mine That Bird's third-place finish in the Belmont.

Chip Woolley, at 45 a veteran of hard times but still swinging, guided Mine That Bird out of New Mexico with a sure hand on one good leg to win the Kentucky Derby and contend to the bitter end in both the Preakness and the Belmont.

And then Tim Ice - remember the name - capped the first year running his own stable by having Summer Bird in the right place at the right time to win the 141st Belmont Stakes last Saturday, on the trainer's 35th birthday, no less. He also got a tie and a couple CD's.

Wiggins, Woolley and Ice - my kind of law firm - stand as absolute proof that a classic Thoroughbred can come from anywhere in spite of the top-loaded economics of the game. Best of all, they confirmed that good horsemanship runs deeply through the land, ready to be revealed when that right horse comes along, even though it comes as a surprise.

Wiggins is out of the Rachel Alexandra picture and Ice came to the Triple Crown center stage late. We'll see if the media has enough energy left to do him and Summer Bird justice as the season rolls on.

That leaves Bennie Woolley Jr., nicknamed Chip at birth (as in "off the old block"), as the lasting image of the 2009 Triple Crown, complete with black hat, shades, horseshoe moustache . . . and crutches.

There is a tendency among journalists to idealize the fresh and the new. Woolley overcame a healthy suspicion of his overnight celebrity to become one of the most engaging Triple Crown personalities of the modern media era. The same thing hit the quick-witted Californian Bob Baffert during Cavonnier's noble campaign of 1996, as well as Philly's accommodating everyman John Servis during the Smarty Jones run of 2004.

Woolley was almost too shocked at the Derby result to enjoy the moment in full. But then, in the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness he hit his stride, with both the media and the logistics of a Triple Crown campaign. When Rachel Alexandra beat Mine That Bird a length in Baltimore, the postrace spin was worshipful toward the filly, but also gave the Derby winner and his trainer high marks for proving the Derby was not a blind fluke.

Then came New York, and there was Woolley paying a visit to the Anna House day care facility on the Belmont backstretch, letting the little kids climb all over him like an exotic piece of playground equipment.

There was Woolley at the Belmont-eve cocktail party, where pretty girls lined up asking to try on his black hat and pose for pictures. What's a man to do?

And there was Woolley, having sent Mine That Bird out of the Belmont walking ring, fighting his way through the tunnel as fans shoved programs his way for autographs. He balanced on his crutch pads and signed every one.

When it was over, and Mine That Bird had finished third after a crowd-thrilling move around the final turn, Woolley stood in the mouth of the shed row of Carl Domino's Barn 18 in the Belmont twilight, weary at the end of the long ride.

"Look at that, I blew a wheel," Woolley said, lifting his right crutch to display a rubber tip worn through at some point during the day.

"Are those the crutches you're gonna give to the Derby Museum?" asked Woolley's father, Bennie Sr., the old block himself.

"Yes, they are," Woolley replied. "You know, I'm a lot taller than people think I am."

Woolley planned to take Mine That Bird, along with his all-around hand Charlie Figueroa, to Churchill Downs for decompression before heading back to New Mexico.

"We got Stephen Foster Day coming up, when we get all our Derby trophies and rings," he said. "He won't gallop at all, so Charlie can just go out there in the morning and walk him. I'll come out and check on him, and I'll try and lay up myself. Get my leg up, and get it X-rayed."

Woolley was told last March, when extensive surgery was required to put the lower leg back together after his motorcycle betrayed him, that he should take it easy and keep it elevated. Woolley shook his head.

"Fat chance of that happening," he said.

But now it was over. Time for the trainer to heal and the horse to rest. In the hazy corners of what might have been, Woolley will allow himself to wonder if it made a difference that Mine That Bird got a little wound up by the briefly disruptive behavior of another horse in Belmont's prerace monitoring barn (the other horse was Summer Bird). He will entertain the idea that Calvin Borel could have waited a few beats longer to launch Mine That Bird's Belmont move, but he won't dwell on it. And Woolley is man enough to concede that he might have done something leading up to the race to anticipate Mine That Bird's uncharacteristically edgy behavior heading to the paddock and, according to Borel, in the race itself.

More than anything, though, Woolley went to bed Saturday night feeling like his horse had fired a winning race and lost. No trainer swallows that easily.

"What hurts is that it was the softest field he'd hooked in the three races," Woolley said, as friends and family gathered late. "But he was the only one that lit the board that ran in all three. You can't tell me that's not significant."

Nobody would dare. It was significant not only in terms of Mine That Bird's possible vulnerability as a horse who had danced them all (both Summer Bird and Belmont runner-up Dunkirk ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness), but also in terms of history. For context, over the past 20 runnings, there have been 13 horses who finished in the money in all three Triple Crown races, namely Curlin, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Charismatic, Victory Gallop, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Free House, Thunder Gulch, Go for Gin, and Mane Minister. And now Mine That Bird, the unlikeliest of all, who at that particular moment was tossing his head and wondering who he had to trample to get his dinner. A friend from home approached the trainer.

"How you doin', man?" he asked.

"Aw, it'll be all right," Woolley replied. "Eventually."

It remains to be seen if Woolley will be able to take his newfound fame and run with it. Right now, he's looking forward to running anywhere at all. By then it was almost 8:30, and the 2009 Triple Crown was easing into history. The traffic on Hempstead Turnpike, just the other side of a nearby fence, was wall to wall, but it was getting empty and quiet on the backstretch.

Woolley turned and walked himself to Mine That Bird's stall and leaned his crutches against the wall. Then, balancing on his good left foot, he bent over and put the finishing touches on the Derby winner's tub of hot grain.