LETTER FROM RUIDOSO
A Horse of a Different Color
Mine That Bird takes a victory lap for New Mexico fans before racing in this month's Goodwood Stakes and next month's Breeder's Cup Classic.
By Hugh Dan Summers
Labor Day was cool and rainy in Ruidoso Downs. A long line of idle cars could be seen stretching down the middle of Hwy. 70, drivers impatiently waiting for police officers to wave them onto a muddy, makeshift parking lot high above Ruidoso Downs Racetrack. A motley fleet of people-movers — yellow school buses, casino courtesy vans and tractor-pulled trailers — loaded patrons at the track entrance and drove slowly toward the already packed grandstands.
The All-American Futurity, with an estimated $2 million on the line, is always the busiest race day of the season at Ruidoso Downs. But this year the crowds were especially large. "Twenty-five percent bigger," guessed Eddie Peay, who has helped ferry loads of race fans toward the track each big-race weekend for the past several years. A quick attempt to survey the muddy-booted fans piling onto Peay's trailer brought forth a round of cheers for one of New Mexico's newest heroes.
"We're here for Mine That Bird, buddy!" someone shouted.
The decision to have 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird lead the Futurity's post parade was a gesture of thanks to the fans in New Mexico, said Roswell veterinarian Dr. Leonard Blach, who, with Mark Allen, co-owns the horse. "The enthusiasm showed by fans in New Mexico has been outstanding, and we wanted to show how much we appreciate it," he said.
It turned out that the appreciation is mutual. After nine races the crowd was primed for Mine That Bird's appearance, and the applause began before the crooked-gaited bay gelding and jockey Calvin Borel, who authored the legendary come-from-behind victory at Churchill Downs, hit the track. The jockeys of the horses that were being led to the starting gate wisely allowed Borel and Mine That Bird plenty of room to bask in the adulation.
In addition to his other talents, Mine That Bird appears to know how to work an audience. As a groom guided Mine That Bird along the rail, the horse's ears stiffened and he turned his head to engage his fans. "He was just like that at the Derby," said Blach. "His eyes always brighten when there's a bunch of people. Ears go up and he looks right at the crowd."
But not everyone was charmed by Mine That Bird or happy with his presence. George Stockstill, a resident of Ruidoso, left after the fifth race of the day. "I'm here every day during the race season, and now I gotta walk from here clear to the river to find my car," he complained. "I got no problem with the people here for the Futurity, or the people here for the Futurity and Mine That Bird, but I got a problem with the people just here for Mine That Bird."
After all, there were serious races going on.
The All-American Futurity makes up one leg of the Triple Crown for Quarter Horses. The only avenue for entry into the All-American is to win one of 20 trials held over the course of the summer. Coincidentally, Winner's Cartel, who qualified for the All-American with the sixth-fastest time, is also owned by Mark Allen. Unfortunately for Allen, Mine That Bird's presence did not mean good fortune for the horse's stable-mate; a Utah-based filly, Running Brooks Gal, took the race after getting a clean start while her competitors struggled out of the gate in the mud.
Running Brooks Gal's victory was a fine end to the summer racing program at the Downs in Ruidoso, but for Mine That Bird, the season continues. After the horse's appearance at the All-American, Blach and Allen planned to offer Mine That Bird a brief respite by scheduling a viewing and a few days rest at Allen's Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell. From there, Mine That Bird is scheduled to travel to California for the Oct. 10 running of the Goodwood Stakes. The Goodwood is meant to be a tune-up race to prepare Mine That Bird for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic run on Nov. 7 at storied Santa Anita Park, where he will be up against Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird and, possibly, undefeated five-year old filly Zenyatta.
A win in the Breeders' Cup is important, Blach said. "Mine That Bird needs one or two more wins," he said, "especially in the Breeders' Cup. I mean, he'd still be a great horse, but. . ." The "but" refers to the sentiment among horse racing's elite that Mine That Bird still has something to prove.
Despite a close second-place finish to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Mine That Bird is still seen by many East Coast horse people as something of an amusing aberration. Blach and Allen insist that they were treated with much grace and respect during Mine That Bird's summer Triple Crown campaign, but it is hard to ignore the sentiment behind quotes such as this one by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas: "He beat everyone that showed up. For that, we better give him his due. But. . . that having been said, it was a strange Derby and hard to figure."
But Blach thinks his horse has proved his mettle. "We've ran first, second and third in the three biggest races of the summer," he said, referring to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. "The only race we didn't do well in was the West Virginia Derby, and we spotted the field 14 pounds. I think the jockey let the horse break early and tired him out."
When reminded that jockey Mike Smith, who blamed himself for Mine That Bird's loss in the Preakness, said that Mine That Bird is the bravest horse he's ever ridden, Blach was quick to agree: "In the long run you don't have to worry about our horse. He's going to win because he's not afraid to go through other horses," he said, referring to Mine That Bird's rail-hugging surge from last to first in the Derby. "Unlike some horses, he doesn't have to go around them to win."
Whatever Mine That Bird's ultimate standing in Thoroughbred history, there is no mistaking his effect on race fans in New Mexico. Ultimately, Ruidoso Downs would announce a record attendance of 23,478. "I think Mine That Bird's victory in the Kentucky Derby will continue to generate enthusiasm for racing in New Mexico," said Blach. "After all, if we can get a horse and make it to Churchill Downs, anyone could do it."
Blach suggested that by continuing to race his Derby winner he can hold the public's attention. "We'll race him six or seven times all over the country. We'll choose the right conditions."
When asked if he and his partner have other horses who might equal Mine That Bird's success, Blach was non-committal. "It's way too early. But we have this one horse — Raise The Bridle — and we'll know how good he is probably at the end of the Hobbs meet," he said, referring to the September to December racing season at Zia Park.
After the Futurity, Eddie Peay, like his co-workers, began the task of shuttling race fans back to their cars. Many still clutched programs and wads of betting slips. A woman climbed aboard the trailer hooked up to Peay's John Deere. The woman sat and pulled her daughter onto her lap. "Mine That Bird sure was a beautiful horse," the girl said to her smiling mother.
Las Cruces writer Hugh Dan Summers sampled Popular Artisan Bread Bakery in our August issue.