Let's hope Kentucky Derby avoids errant epilogue

May 5, 2009 3:05 AM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

They didn’t write a line about him before the Kentucky Derby and they haven’t written about anything else since.

Mine That Bird starred in the most improbable Derby ever, and saved an otherwise bleak day for all concerned. The fairy tale of a horse from the wilds of New Mexico being trailered by his cowboy trainer on crutches, and coming from dead last in a 19-horse field to win at odds of 50-to-1, is the kind of stuff a Hollywood script writer does, not a horse racing columnist. But every guy with a laptop had to write it, since it was the story of the Derby, with drama.

Injuries to the major contenders, including one to the probable favorite I Want Revenge that forced his withdrawal on Derby morning, disheartened the 153,000 the Derby said were present, and disappointed everyone else who was following the race.

Until it was run.

The hero, besides the horse, was the Cajun jockey Calvin Borel, who rode the rail – some call him Bo-Rail for that skill – and saved ground. But there was more to it than that. Borel is perhaps the best race rider in America for riding the rails. He won the 2007 Derby doing it with Street Sense, and he earned his nickname honestly in dozens of other daring performances.

He also is the most emotional jockey in America, and last Saturday he was crying and laughing and weeping and smiling alternately following his amazing Daily Double.

He had won the Kentucky Oaks for fillies the day before the Derby, and while he rode a little horse through tight quarters in the Derby, he rode a big filly to a runaway 20½ -length victory in the Oaks.

"She is the next Secretariat," he exclaimed after the Oaks. After the Derby, when asked which horse he would ride if both were entered in one of the other two classics that make up thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown – the Preakness at Pimlico and the Belmont in New York – he didn’t hesitate to say, "The filly."

Thoroughbred racing has had some bad publicity in the last year, ever since Eight Belles fell and was euthanized after finishing second in last year’s Derby. The trainer of last year s winner, Big Brown, was Richard Dutrow, who will not win any boy scout medals, in Kentucky or elsewhere. The trainer of this year’s favorite, I Want Revenge, Jeff Mullins, has a record of mistakes and misdeeds stretching back to California, where he is based. Most recently he carried a syringe into the paddock at Aqueduct in New York and medicated a horse about to run, both violations of racing’s rules.

This year’s Derby fairy tale also has a shadow figure, Mine That Bird’s co-owner, Mark Allen.

Nothing was written about him before the Derby; he was a virtual unknown to any of the writers. But he was known elsewhere, although for racing’s sake the story hasn’t burst on the scene as yet.

Allen was portrayed Saturday – accurately – as a rancher. He owns Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, New Mexico. He also happens to be the son of Bill Allen, a central figure in the trial of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. Bill Allen is a big man in that big state, and he pleaded guilty two years ago to bribing Alaskan politicians.

He did so in a plea bargain, in which the government agreed not to prosecute his son Mark. Mark’s father sold his company, Veco, an international oil field engineering company, to a Denver firm for $146 million. Mark and his two sisters each emerged from that transaction with $30 million or so.

Mark Allen did not buy Mine That Bird on a whim. He knew the horse’s family well, having been a partner in the Derby winner’s older half-brother, So Long Birdie, in which Senator Stevens was a partner. The horse now stands stud duty at Dr. Leonard Blach’s Buena Suerte Equine Clinic. Dr. Blach is a veterinarian and is Mark Allen’s neighbor.

Dr. Blach, in an interview last summer, when the Alaska bribe matter was getting hot attention, told reporters that he was not too well acquainted with Mark Allen, saying,"I see him once in a while. I just don’t know too much about him, to tell the truth about it."

Last Saturday, during the post race celebration, Dr. Blach said of Allen, ""We’ve been friends for years." Winners can do wonders.

Thoroughbred racing has lucked out again, with not one but two great stories: Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra. Those two alone, plus Calvin Borel, will keep the media grist mills grinding all summer long.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein