05/14/2009 12:00AM

Tough-guy image is no act

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Chip Woolley is a hardworking throwback, but also a soft touch.

The image is straight out of a Clint Eastwood western. Black cowboy hat. Dark sunglasses. Fu Manchu mustache. Requisite scowl.

For Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr., this is hardly an act. Born and raised in the Texas panhandle town of Dalhart, Woolley has the classic exterior of a rough-and-ready cowpoke, a wrangler who would just as soon challenge you to a duel at 20 paces as look at you.

There is some incongruity, then, in his role as a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer. In contrast to some of the city-slicked, shiny-toothed, glib-talking men who in recent years have dominated the upper echelon of the Triple Crown domain, Woolley is a throwback. The majority of his 45 years have been spent in northwest Texas and New Mexico, where a man's worth frequently is judged on his willingness to work.

Indeed, it was discipline, dedication, and self-confidence that lifted Woolley to the mountaintop of Thoroughbred racing. When he sent out Mine That Bird for his improbable triumph in the May 2 Derby at Churchill Downs, Woolley saw years of grinding and struggling pay off in an unimaginable way.

"One of my favorite stories about Chip is how he and [friend and fellow trainer] Mike Barber would work all morning, then go split a cup of coffee because they couldn't afford anything more," said Kim Carr, Woolley's girlfriend for the last four years. "And now look at what Chip's done. It's just such an unbelievable feat."

Despite the tough-guy image, Woolley, by all accounts, is thoughtful, intelligent, unflappable, dry-humored, and driven - an animal lover who long ago came to terms with who he is and what he does. When the 2009 Triple Crown chase is over, it won't be long before he returns to New Mexico and gets back to his old routine with a moderately successful, medium-sized stable.

That routine consists of traveling the circuit with his horses, taking the occasional big-game hunting trip, riding his motorcycles, and being with the people he chooses to be with.

"Chip is Chip," said Joel Marr, a close associate and fellow trainer who from 2005 to 2008 guided the New Mexico-bred mare Peppers Pride to win all 19 of her races. "He's pretty straightforward and doesn't apologize for any of it. If he believes in something, he's going with it, and that's just the way it is."

Woolley did not believe that Mine That Bird could win the Derby. But because "the horse was just doing so well," he said, in mid-April his intuition led him to go along with the gelding's owners, Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach, in giving the Derby a try. More importantly, Woolley thought a change in race tactics would lead to a respectable showing. Then jockey Calvin Borel got Mine That Bird to relax while trailing the field through the opening six furlongs and urged him to a spectacular upset at 50-1.

"Imagine going for weeks, thinking all you want is to have your horse run a decent race in the Kentucky Derby," Marr said. "And then for the first minute and 30 seconds of the race itself, that's what you're still thinking - go on, don't embarrass us now, run your race, finish up nice.

"And then the next 30 seconds change your life forever."

Carr recalled that after Mine That Bird made his furious stretch run, and the predictable amount of chaos erupted in the Churchill boxed seats where the gelding's connections were watching, Woolley was so excited that he started for the winner's circle without his crutches, his trademark equipment since he fractured his leg in a late-February motorcycle accident.

"He was hopping on one leg and balancing on one toe with the other," Carr said.

After the cheering stopped, Woolley had time to consider the enormity of what occurred.

"It actually took a few days for it all to sink in, and after that I really started to enjoy it," Woolley said. "I guess people do look at me a little differently than they did before, but I have to say I was treated very well before the race, too. Obviously, it's been pretty hectic since we won. I've gotten hundreds of calls and congratulations, some from people I haven't heard from in years. It's been an incredible experience."

Woolley remained in Louisville until Tuesday morning, leaving in his Ford F-450 Super Duty truck - with box-stall trailer, including Mine That Bird, in tow - for the eastward road trip to Baltimore, where Saturday he will saddle Mine That Bird for the 134th Preakness at Pimlico.

Back home in Dalhart, people are still beaming, including his parents, Bennie Sr. and Anne, who still live and work there after raising five children. Carr said Woolley's parents "are really, really proud of their son. Chip worked his whole life and nobody gave him anything."

After graduating high school in Dalhart, Woolley took classes for two years at Frank Phillips College in the panhandle town of Borger, but he never went back after a particularly enjoyable summer on the racetrack. Working with bulls, broncs, Quarter Horses, and eventually Thoroughbreds, he became an accomplished rider, and he still exercises some of his horses when he isn't hobbled. He opened a public stable in 1991 and has won nearly 400 races.

"Chip gets a little intense and focused," said Allen, who said he has known Woolley for about 25 years. "He's an excellent horseman. When he's around the horses, you just kind of leave him alone and let him do his job."

Carr said any perception of Woolley based strictly on his old-West attire and outward demeanor is misguided.

"He's a soft and kind-hearted individual," Carr said. "When we're in El Paso or Albuquerque for Christmas, every homeless person he sees he'll give a dollar or two.

"After he won the Derby, he was trying to cover up the tears. There was so much emotion going on there. He would've loved to let his guard down because he'd lived his whole life for that kind of accomplishment."

Woolley said that regardless of what happens in Baltimore and beyond, the 2009 Derby will always be his.

"It's something that stays with you the rest of your life," he said, "and that's a good thing."