FROM LOUISVILLE, KY. — When the most unlikely journey in Kentucky Derby history ended in splattered mud and swirling magic, the guy holding the reins grabbed a rose.
And promptly tore it apart.
He pulled a rich red petal from the stem, kissed it, and tossed it to the sky.
The heavens having just showered him with unexpected, unimaginable beauty, Calvin Borel was just returning the favor.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, May 05, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Bill Plaschke column: Bill Plaschke's Sports column Sunday on surprise Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird said "a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby somehow gave him enough winnings to qualify for the Derby." In fact, Kentucky Derby qualifying is based on earnings only from graded stakes races; Sunland is ungraded. Most of Mine That Bird's Derby-qualifying earnings were in Canada.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 10, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Bill Plaschke column: Bill Plaschke's Sports column May 3 on surprise Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird said "a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby somehow gave him enough winnings to qualify for the Derby." In fact, Kentucky Derby qualifying is based on earnings only from graded stakes races; Sunland is ungraded. Most of Mine That Bird's Derby-qualifying earnings were in Canada.
"Unbelievable!" he shouted.
Call it the Longshot Heard 'Round the World.
Mine That Bird was a 50-to-1 nag who arrived here in a trailer pulled across the country by a Ford pickup truck driven by his trainer.
Bennie Woolley Jr. was a hobbled trainer who this year had as many motorcycle wrecks (1) as victories.
Mark Allen was a cowboy co-owner whose truck broke down on the drive here from New Mexico.
Borel was a jockey who never even sat on the horse until six days ago.
When Saturday's 135th Derby began with some of the best horses in the world, Mine That Bird was arguably the worst.
After a quarter of a mile, he was absolutely the worst, 19th out of 19, in last place.
After a half mile, still last.
After three-quarters of a mile, still last.
"My heart sunk," co-owner Dr. Leonard Blach said.
"I about quit watching," Allen said.
What happened next will be seen forever.
Borel found the rail. The rest of the field lost its breath. A nation of viewers rubbed their eyes.
From 19th place to 12th place to the lead down the stretch, Mine That Bird thundered past millions of dollars of horses and a whole bunch of history in becoming the most unlikely of Derby champions.
A champion who was originally purchased for $9,500.
A champion who had not won a race in seven months.
A champion who prepped for his moment of glory by finishing fourth in something called the Sunland Derby, on a track somewhere in New Mexico.
In 135 years, only one other winner has overcome longer odds, although it's hard to imagine how that would be possible.
"It just shows you how special this race is," said veteran trainer Todd Pletcher, who is now 0 for 24 here with three more losing horses. "Anything can happen."
Anything, certainly, but this?
A horse handled by a bunch of black-hatted cowpokes straight out of "Blazing Saddles"?
A horse ridden by a former Derby-winning jockey who took this ride only because he couldn't get a better mount?
Borel wasn't surprised when the horse started like something out of a parking-lot pony ride.
"I didn't think I would win," he said.
But then when the competition -- missing late-scratched favorite I Want Revenge -- didn't run away from him, he began thinking.
"I was just chilling," he said. "But the other horses weren't going that much faster than him."
So Borel, who charged to victory with a late rush on the rail on Street Sense in 2007, decided to make a move and -- surprise, surprise -- the horse was ready to move with him.
"I asked him and he kept getting closer to them and then I thought, 'God, he's going to get here!' " he said.
He began that move on the rail, darted around a couple of horses, then moved back to the rail for the final push, and you think you were stunned?
Garrett Gomez, on second-place Pioneerof The Nile: "I thought I was sitting on the winner when turning for home."
Rafael Bejarano, on fourth-place Papa Clem: "I can't believe it. I was in perfect position."
Mike Smith, on fifth-place Chocolate Candy: "Turning for home, I thought I was going to win it."
Not only did none of them win it, Mine That Bird's run was so quick, so furious, he won by nearly seven lengths.
In the end, it was so easy, Borel turned and pointed repeatedly to the stands before reaching the finish line.
He said he was recognizing his fiancee, Lisa Funk, probably because she was the only one who always believed the horse could win?
"Um, no," she said.
Borel was so stunned, afterward he wouldn't leave the track, as if he thought the victory would disappear when he did.
He rode around with his hands in the air, or slapping fists with the track workers, or slapping the back of the horse, until finally he left through a crowd that screamed with delight.
It was hard to blame Borel for celebrating such an unlikely journey.
Mine That Bird's original owners thought so little of his stud prospects, he was gelded.
In his last big race, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, he was a last-minute entry, rushed there so hurriedly from New Mexico that when the race started, he was still woozy from the trip and finished last in a field of 12.
Once he returned to New Mexico, the horse settled into a life of mediocrity until a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby somehow gave him enough winnings to qualify for the Derby.
His two-man ownership group conferred about making an outlandish Derby entry and issued a definitive three-word decision.
What the heck.
"I figured, it was once in a lifetime, why not give it a shot?" said Blach, a veterinarian who owns the horse with Allen.