Catch him in the wrong light, and at first glance, Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr. looks like one of those bad-ass characters from a John Ford Western: black cowboy hat, black shirt, dark Fu Manchu mustache, jeans for cattle, not for carousing and boots in need of some tender loving care.
Toss in the fact that he once rode rodeo bareback horses, was in at least one bar room brawl, was walking on crutches since he broke his right leg in a motorcycle accident eight months ago, and Woolley makes Jack Elam and Jack Palance look like guys auditioning for the ballet.
But truth be told, "Chip," as he’s been called "since the time I was a little kid," presents a considerably softer presence than his villainous image. And that’s benign news, not for just social acquaintances, but for racing in general.
Woolley has been training horses since 1983, but no one ever heard of him until May 2, 2009. That’s the day he saddled a 50-1 shot named Mine That Bird to win the Kentucky Derby and became an overnight sensation. Woolley didn’t travel to Churchill Downs first class. He loaded Mine That Bird on a Turnbow trailer behind his Ford pickup truck and, despite his crippled pedal foot, drove 1,500 miles from his New Mexico base to Louisville.
When Mine That Bird won the Run for the Roses by 6¾ lengths and paid $103.20, the second-highest in 135 runnings, the horse, the jockey, Calvin Borel, and the trainer were instant celebrities.
Aside from their fame, life hasn’t changed much for any of them. Mine That Bird remains the same laid-back gelding he was before the Derby. "He’s like a puppy dog," says his devoted 53-year-old groom, hot walker and caretaker, Charlie Figueroa.
Borel, who turns 43 on Nov. 7, exudes his Cajun charm in infinite doses, while the status quo of Woolley’s values and lifestyle are unchanged, and that’s a good thing, especially in racing.
Fast forward to October, 2009. Mine That Bird, Figueroa and Woolley are encamped at trainer Richard Mandella’s barn at Santa Anita, preparing for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7. They are regrouping after Mine That Bird finished sixth on Oct. 10 in the Goodwood Stakes, his last major prep race for the Classic. Woolley is hopeful more favorable conditions will result in a Classic victory.
"We were disappointed in the Goodwood, but you can’t get that far out of a race when the pace is that slow," Woolley said. "My horse closed, and he ran pretty fast when you go back and analyze the race. He went the last five-eighths (of a mile) in :58, but the other horses weren’t slowing down, not when they went a half-mile in :48.54. I’ll bet you there’s not a Grade I (race) in the country run that slow for the first half mile all year–not on a fast track."
Fast or slow, this year the Breeders’ Cup will be run for the second straight year on Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride main track, which, like other artificial surfaces, has detractors as well as proponents. As a 2-year-old, Mine That Bird won four straight on Woodbine’s synthetic Polytrack, but is winless in two starts on Santa Anita’s man-made mixture. He was last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in 2008, and sixth, beaten nearly four lengths in the Goodwood.
Rationale and personal agendas aside, Mine That Bird must show considerable improvement to win the Classic, especially if the undefeated mare Zenyatta runs in the mile and a quarter test in quest of her 14th straight victory, against male horses for the first time. Zenyatta has nothing to prove by beating up on females again. Even though super filly Rachel Alexandra is a shoo-in for Horse of the Year, the only glimmer of hope Zenyatta has of winning would be to defeat the boys in the Classic.
A win by Mine That Bird would be an upset, but it would thrust him back in the picture for top male 3-year-old. Thanks to three straight Grade I victories, Summer Bird has a lock on that title at the moment.
Mine That Bird vanquished Summer Bird in the Kentucky Derby, but Summer Bird turned the tables in the Belmont Stakes, and since has added the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he defeated older horses. Mine That Bird, meanwhile, is winless in five starts since taking the Run for the Roses.
"There’s no doubt Summer Bird deserves to be 3-year-old champion, at this point," said Woolley, whose father’s first name also is Bennie (thus his son is a "Chip" off the old block). "Tim (trainer Tim Ice) has done a great job with the horse. He’s run huge. He’s put together three Grade I wins in his last four starts, and has obviously gotten better since the Derby. Right now, the way things stand, he would have to be the 3-year-old champion."
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden
Watch every Tuesday for a brand new Golden Edge article.