09/11/2009 12:00AM

A road trip heads to the Cup

Coady Photography
Mine That Bird, with Charlie Figueroa riding, has the Ruidoso strip to himself for a gallop.

RUIDOSO DOWNS, N.M. - Mine That Bird's brief reunion with his New Mexico fans will end sometime Monday afternoon, when he will be loaded on Chip Woolley's Turnbow trailer at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque and head west on I-40. They will follow the shadow of old Route 66, America's Mother Road, through Gallup, Kingman, and Barstow, and on into L.A., arriving sometime Tuesday morning, then settle in for a run at the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 7.

"It's only about 14 hours straight through," said Woolley, a man who is used to long hauls. "We'll be doing it at night, so it'll be cool. And we won't have much traffic. I guess the only thing that concerns me is the fires."

He is not alone. Fire season came early to drought-stricken Southern California this year. The big daddy of the blazes, called the Station Fire, was up to 160,000 acres by last Tuesday night and crept at one point to the slopes above Sierra Madre, the cozy little community just to the north of Santa Anita.

"There was smoke and ash, but we got lucky," said trainer Paddy Gallagher, who lives in Sierra Madre. "The fire didn't get any closer than the other side of the hills above us. I couldn't smell any smoke at the track today at all."

That's good news. The idea of taking his Kentucky Derby winner into a smoke-filled arena was enough to get Woolley wondering if maybe he shouldn't keep on driving across town to Hollywood Park, where dry brush is not a factor and ocean breezes tend to prevail.

"You'd always like to train where you race if you can," Woolley said. "And you never like to put 'em on a trailer any more than you have to. We've got time, though, before we've got to decide."

It was early Wednesday morning, outside Barn 37 on the nearly empty Ruidoso Downs backside. The meet ended Monday, so most of the horses had moved on to Zia Park in the southeastern part of the state, and the track was closed to all except for the Kentucky Derby winner.

"They were kind enough to let us use it for a couple more gallops before heading out," said Dr. Leonard Blach, the veterinarian who owns Mine That Bird with Mark Allen. "I kind of like him training here, in the altitude, kind of like Lance Armstrong training in Colorado. I'm not sure he'll have been here long enough for it to make all that much of a difference. But he looks well, and I do believe he's put on some weight since the Derby."

With exercise rider Charlie Figueroa aboard, Mine That Bird appeared beneath picture-postcard New Mexico skies and walked in splendid isolation down the hill from Woolley's barn, followed the asphalt backstretch road along the fenced off creek bed, then trooped up another rise to the track's in-gap. He was tailed at a respectful distance by Woolley and Blach, in separate pickups, and by backstretch security chief Bobby Brown and one of his men, Ronnie Jackson, in separate golf carts. Jackson was asked if two security men for one horse on a deserted backstretch was a bit too much.

"Not for this horse," he replied.

Figueroa backtracked to the head of the backstretch, then turned and jogged off. By the time they came around again, Mine That Bird was rolling along in an open gallop, flicking through the sandy red clay and loam of the Ruidoso main course. Woolley leaned on his crutches - that broken leg and ankle are still under repair - and watched his horse critically.

Back at the barn, after getting a bath, Mine That Bird cooled out with stablehand George Smith going round and round on the soft pad of ground where Woolley's automatic hotwalker had lived the day before. The walker was on a flatbed, ready to haul, and where it once sat there grew a fresh patch of ankle-high Bermuda. After a while, Smith let the Derby winner graze away.

"He'd already eaten up that patch over there," Blach said, pointing toward another tow ring. "He's actually gained weight since the Derby, but I'd still like to see a little bit more on him. But he looks great - he's even a darker bay than he was as a 2-year-old - and he scoped real clean yesterday."

Blach was referring to the throat surgery that kept Mine That Bird out of the Travers.

"He probably could have run, and we thought about it," Blach said. "But the Breeders' Cup is our main goal. There was enough reason to pass that race and give him a little break, just to make absolute certain things were 100 percent."

Mine That Bird spent Thursday as the star attraction of an open house party at Mark Allen's Buena Suerte Farm and Training Center in Roswell, some 70 miles to the east and down the mountain from Ruidoso, then on Friday he was heading for Albuquerque, 170 miles back to the northwest. The plan is to work him there Monday morning, then it's back on the road.

As Woolley sees it, this will give Mine That Bird several days to gallop over Santa Anita's freshly renovated Pro-Ride surface before he needs to work again. After that, Mine That Bird will prep for the Classic in the Goodwood Stakes on Oct. 10.

"The only time I was at Santa Anita was about 20 years ago to buy a couple horses," Woolley recalled. "It's a beautiful track, but the only thing I remember about the backstretch is that there is no grass. If you want to graze one, he's got to graze on pavement."

Sure, but at least pavement doesn't burn.