by Kim Thomas
There are a lot of curmudgeons in this world. Folks love to predict that Armageddon is on the way (“Jesus Is Coming; Look Busy!”), forecasters declare that the bad economy will be the ruination of our lives, and of course in recent days, the fear-mongers have advised that alas, there’s no ‘oinkment’ to soothe the swine flu.
The overcast sky turned out to be a blessing disguise and kept me cool as I trudged back and forth through the mud from the paddock to the rail and back across to retrieve photo cards to return them to the Media Center for download. Indeed, I had been assigned some vital tasks (along with friends-of-Z Lisa Oslin and Amy Owens) to ensure that all Z’s photos made it safely to the news organizations who needed timely photographic updates to add to their websites and broadcasts throughout the day.
A unique opportunity presented itself as I gave Derby newbie Lisa Osland a tour of the Downs early in the morning before the masses arrived. We were passing through the paddock when we saw a 10-foot long floral box arrive carrying the legendary garland of roses and flanked on all sides by security. Later in the day, I also had the privilege of being nearby when MINE THAT BIRD -- with a beaming Calvin Borel atop – stood quietly still as the very same roses were draped over the horse who had just stunned the world by winning the Derby. As it turned out, the owners gave the roses away to thrilled onlookers instead of keeping them all to themselves. That was indicative of their generosity and kind nature. Earlier in the week, Z had been taking photos of all the horses in their barns or during workouts. When she informed Woolley that her friend (and Derby helper) Amy Owens had sent her regards, Woolley responded enthusiastically and welcomed Z, offering her a bottle of water. Z later said, “In all the 25 years I have been taking photos of horses, not one single owner or trainer has ever offered me a frickin’ bottle of water! This is a testament to how genuine these guys are, they simply have no pretention about them -- they showed some class!”
Speaking of class, during the race Jockey Borel also revealed to us that patience is indeed a virtue, and after waiting for the leaders of the pack to tire, he found a pencil-thin beacon of light that illuminated his path for him to weave the horse clear-through to victory. Tom Durkin, the announcer for the NBC broadcast of the race, was apparently distracted by all the big shots and refrained from even mentioning MINE THAT BIRD until Borel and Company pulled ahead of field, proving that this wasn’t just another horse getting stuck in the mud, but rather was an unlikely hero soaring to triumph.
A co-worker of mine told me he attended the Derby for the first time (took his wife and in-laws to the infield) apparently saw a lot of superheroes -- Flash Gordon, Wonder Woman, The Hulk and Spiderman – but he said the most astonishing site was a guy whose body was 100% covered in tattoos. He thought he saw Billy Idol out there too; I told him I thought I’d seen OctoMom (most likely betting on the 8 horse in every race), but it turned out to be just another victim of Botox and Collagen injections. Turns out there were a lot of faux celebrities and sometimes that’s a great way to pass the time while awaiting the big race – to identify all the almost-celebs in the crowd. Another notorious look-alike was a photographer by the rail who was a dead-ringer for Dick Cheney. Of course, by that point, it was probably nothing more than a Mint Julep-induced hallucination. Still, I had to laugh at the sight of the Evil One jockeying for position along the rail with the rest of us and no secret service to help him out.
Seriously (or not), I did have a few brushes with greatness: LeAnn Rimes was just a muddy track width away from me when she rendered her inspirational version of the Star Spangled Banner. Leprechaun-in-a-suit Bob Costas from NBC quickly did his part and then hustled off and away from the winners circle. Manly Eli Manning, on the other hand, was tall and handsome, seemed to be having a great time. We even spotted UK’s new basketball coach John Calipari enjoy being bathed in adoration when he arrived, too.
The best view, however, came from my spot on the rail before the race. I was there to carry a small step ladder to Z as soon as I could after the Derby was finished. With Amy Owens at my side, we wept as My Old Kentucky was played (yes, we knew all the words and didn’t need to watch the jumbo-tron). Then we looked up, and there before us was the specter of more than 100,000 people perched in their positions under the Twin Spires as they cheered each horse and its entourage during the breathtaking post parade promenade. Once the race began, we watched the herd pass the first time, then watched the big screen while the best of the best Thoroughbreds in the world came thundering down the sloppy track toward the finish line. I will never, ever forget the joyous look of bliss on Borel’s face as he crossed the finish line, just feet away from me. It was not a pompous sneer, though -- it was an ear-to-ear grin that would turn the most cynical curmudgeon’s scowl into a smiling snicker.
The real story, however, of Saturday's 135th running of the Kentucky Derby is about the humble group of cowboy friends who stuck together, took good care of their charge, and ultimately made their dreams come true. They showed us that Faith can carry the day, even it is an overcast day, which turned out to be a stroke of luck in itself. Absent the customary 8-hours-in-the-Churchill-sunburn, the glow on everyone's face at the end of the day was due to the joy of watching an underdog seek out the light and find a way to win, despite the odds, the mud, and the ‘big names’ who had garnered so much media attention.
This year, I predict the Derby afterglow will last a lot longer than it usually does because we witnessed the greatest event in Kentucky unfold before the eyes of the world, unhindered by controversy and conceit. This was a day chock full of all the splendor and pageantry that the Derby deserves: a happy day with a happy ending provided by an unlikely hero. Much of life's wonderful moments come to us that way, though, don't they?
MINE THAT BIRD -- son of Belmont winner BIRDSTONE, whose sire is Derby winner GRINDSTONE -- ran the race of his life on this past Saturday, when he took over the 20-horse field of Kentucky Derby runners and impressed the crowd with nothing more than pure heart and a jockey with a smile that would humble the world. He is the first foal from the unraced Mining My Own (by SMART STRIKE, who sired Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Curlin). Mining My Own and her bloodline apparently are credited with providing the stamina that a horse like MINE THAT BIRD will need to compete in the Triple Crown.
In a photo taken earlier in the week by Enzina Mastrippolito, aka Photos by Z, you can see the trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley, Jr., in the background with his now-famous crutches at his side, watching the horse who would defy the odds-makers and make history as the gelding who beat the colts. During the week before the Derby, Bennie “Chip” Woolley had said he was optimistic about the Canadian champion gelding, saying “He does everything right, every time. He’s not a problem horse at all. He might stop and look at things, but other than that nothing bothers him. He just stands there and takes it all in.”
Despite Woolley's cheerful outlook, the temptation was there by the media to tout I Want Revenge, who was suddenly withdrawn from the race on Derby day itself. I'm afraid that I, too, was guilty of giving the horse short shrift, and I am not going to say I'm eating crow today, but I do feel a bit sheepish. In my haste to make sure every horse was covered in my blog – at KimmyVille.blogspot.com -- I had only briefly mentioned that he was the son of a Belmont winner, and MINE THAT BIRD would be the first Derby starter for Woolley as well as owners Mike Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach. He had won a Grade III race, was a Canadian Champion as a 2-year-old, but his racing in 2009 had done nothing more than push him into obscurity. Thus, it seemed to casual observers like me that MINE THAT BIRD really was not ready to make his mark on the racing world. However, the gelding with the unruffled feathers had in subtly instilled confidence in his owners, trainers and jockey, whose collective faith guided him down the muddy path that led to the soft grass of the Churchill Downs winners circle.