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Originally published Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 8:19 AM

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Mine That Bird goes from oddball to champ

They weren't supposed to be here among the big shots and the sheik, the Hall of Famers and the million dollar sure-things.

AP Sports Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. —

They weren't supposed to be here among the big shots and the sheik, the Hall of Famers and the million dollar sure-things.

Not the tiny horse with the funky feet and unsightly gait. Not the cowboy trainer with the black hat, busted leg and horseshoe mustache to match. Not the owner who met the trainer in a bar fight and got immunity in a federal corruption case through his father's plea deal.

Yet here they are, this unlikely crew on the journey of their lives, propelled by a spectacular run at the Kentucky Derby that took 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird from obscurity to champion for the ages. Next stop: the Preakness Stakes.

The avalanche of attention since the unheralded bay gelding's stunning and emphatic win has been a little bit much for rough-around-the-edges trainer Bennie Woolley Jr. The former bareback rider spent the last 25 years grinding out a modestly successful racing operation at tracks scattered throughout the Southwest.

"It's hard for me to be in front of the cameras," he said. "It's not something I really set out to do. I love being at the barn and doing my thing. The press side is just a little tough."

He better get used to it.

Woolley's post-Derby daze has consisted of a seemingly endless string of interviews, autograph requests, phone calls and well-wishers coming by Barn 42 at Churchill Downs - from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert to the exercise riders, stall muckers and gate attendants.

Gratifying? Sure. Expected? Not exactly.

"It's a tough game," Woolley said. "I never thought I'd get here. You lose 80 percent of the time."

Woolley would know. The Derby was just his second victory of the year, a lengthy drought but hardly the lean times he endured two decades ago while trying to make a name for himself in training, after a series of injuries ended his rodeo career.

"I went broke more than once," he said. "That's a story that's not unfamiliar with most other trainers. I done plenty of other things to pay bills. You do what it takes to survive."

For Woolley, it meant branding cattle or galloping other people's horses with a fearlessness gleaned from his painful stint riding bulls.

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"He wouldn't say no to anything," said friend Mike Barber, a fellow trainer in New Mexico. "I've seen people lead up horses that were rank and unruly and he backed up what he said. If there was a horse that could throw him off, nobody else even wanted to try to ride him."

Not that Woolley would give anybody else the chance. One morning at La Mesa Park he put 33 horses through their workouts, a feat Barber commemorated by painting a sign on the rail.

That work ethic helped Woolley - nicknamed "Shifty" for reasons he laughingly can't recall - establish himself as one of New Mexico's most prominent horsemen. These days he keeps 25 to 30 head at a time, though he's careful not to let the operation get too unwieldy. He prefers to gallop all of his horses, but hasn't been in the saddle since breaking his right leg in a motorcycle accident over the winter.

A thrillseeker who also has a taste for fast cars and hunting, it's hardly a surprise Woolley began his friendship with Mine That Bird owner Mark Allen during a bar fight 25 years ago.

"Mark was the one who started it," Woolley said with a laugh. "That was his doing. It was tempting to let them whoop up on him. But at the same time I couldn't let a fellow cowboy take a beating. So I got up and went and bailed in to help."

They won, eventually.

"It took us a while," Allen said. "We paid the next day. I wasn't sure we were going to make it."

It's been the same with horses.

Allen has owned quarterhorses and thoroughbreds for years as part of his Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, N.M., but didn't really start making a run at high-priced talent until landing a windfall from the sale of oil field services business VECO Corp., owned by his father Bill.

Bill Allen pleaded guilty in 2007 to bribing Alaska politicians, but in a plea deal won immunity for his son. Bill testified that his son paid off an unidentified legislator, though prosecutors haven't said whether they could have charged Mark Allen. Mark won't talk about the case, but the money from the sale helped him become a more prominent horse player.

It's why he sent Woolley up to Canada to get a look at Mine That Bird, who won the Sovereign Award as Canada's top 2-year-old. The son of 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone carried a $400,000 price tag.

It wasn't cheap, but it was a chance for an owner and a trainer who never ventured anywhere near the Kentucky Derby Trail.

At first glance, Woolley wasn't sure the horse was worth it.

Mine That Bird was small, not even 16 hands high. Even worse, his feet pointed out at 45 degree angles, making him run like a car out of alignment.

Woolley spent a couple days watching the horse train. Despite his troubling gait, Mine That Bird seemed to get over the ground easy. Plus, there was a hint of speed Woolley knew he could work with.

Allen didn't waste any time putting his stable's pricey new star to the test. A week after the sale, Allen sent Mine That Bird to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

It was a mistake. The horse faded badly in the stretch, finishing 12th.

Things didn't get any better when Woolley brought him home to New Mexico. Mine That Bird didn't win in two starts at Sunland Park, including a distant fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby on March 29.

Woolley, figuring a trip to Churchill Downs was out of the question, made plans to put the horse in the Lone Star Derby in Texas on May 9.

Then a series of Derby defections - either by injury or a change in plans - opened the door for Mine That Bird to slide into the 20-horse field, solely on the strength of winning the Grey Stakes in Canada seven months ago.

Woolley didn't care. Despite the so-so spring, he thought his horse might be sitting on a big race.

"I told Mark 'This horse is as good as he's been in his life right now. If he's ever going to take a shot, this is the time to do it,'" Woolley said.

So Woolley packed the horse up and drove nearly 1,500 miles to the backside at Churchill Downs. Their arrival went largely unnoticed.

Oddsmakers made Mine That Bird a longshot, and the few stories that trickled out about the horse focused more on Woolley's broken right leg or the lengthy road trip to Kentucky than the horse's actual chances of winning.

"It got aggravating after about the first 6,000 times being asked about the trip," Woolley said. "That wasn't what this was all about. This was about having a good horse, a damn good horse."

Mine That Bird proved it during the Derby, surging past the entire field in the last half-mile to win by 6 3/4 lengths, the widest margin in more than 60 years.

Baffert, who finished second in the Derby with Pioneerof the Nile, admits he's still shocked by the amazing move Mine That Bird put together along the rail under jockey Calvin Borel.

Borel wasn't surprised, though he admits the Derby winner wasn't even the best horse he rode over the weekend. That honor went to Rachel Alexandra, the filly who crushed the field in the Kentucky Oaks and could be pointed to the Preakness after being sold to Stonestreet Stables on Wednesday.

Not that it matters to Woolley, who is still processing his unlikely rise to stardom.

The day after the Derby, Barber was schooling a horse in the paddock at a track in New Mexico at 4 a.m. when the phone rang. It was Shifty. He needed to talk.

"He said, 'Please tell me I won the Kentucky Derby, that this isn't a dream,'" Barber said. "I told him 'I was just sitting here thinking the same thing, when are we going to wake up?' I really got a kick out of that. I told him, 'Trust me. This is the real deal.'"

Is it ever.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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