Advertisement
Share

INVADERS FROM MARS

On the outskirts of town, a couple of miles away from the UFO souvenir shops and the street lights decorated with alien eyes, the cowboy and the veterinarian got together a few weeks ago to discuss their options.

They had a plan for Mine That Bird, and that plan didn’t involve the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes. But they got to talking about the Triple Crown series, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to race at Churchill Downs, and their minds started racing. A little tequila might have been involved too, concedes Dr. Leonard Blach, co-owner of Mine That Bird.

No one anticipated the whirlwind that followed, least of all the quiet New Mexico cowboys caught in the middle. Despite 50-to-1 odds, Mine That Bird sprinted from last to first at the Kentucky Derby, winning the roses by the largest margin since 1946.

But when odds for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes were announced Wednesday, Mine That Bird was only the third betting favorite, which doesn’t bother anyone in Roswell. This is a place that believes a UFO crashed outside town; it’s not a stretch of the imagination for them to envision Mine That Bird winning the second jewel of the Triple Crown on Saturday.

He’s a Kentucky-bred horse -- a gelding -- but has distinct New Mexico connections, rare for a Triple Crown contender. Both owners call Roswell home, his trainer is a former rodeo rider who has been working around New Mexico tracks for two decades and his jockey Saturday is a New Mexico native who started riding horses here when he was 11 years old.

Advertisement

“I’ve just always been a desert rat,” says Mark Allen, Mine That Bird’s other owner. “The high desert has always been home. The people are friendly here, and I’m probably related to half the state.”

If the railbirds thought the horse was a longshot -- Mine That Bird had never won a Grade I race and had finished second and fourth in his two previous races, at Sunland Park, N.M. -- they didn’t study the program too closely. Trainer Chip Woolley has won exactly two races this year, the second being the historic run at the Derby. Blach has been around horses his entire life but never contemplated the Derby. And Allen could be answering to criminal charges in Alaska right now had his father not negotiated his immunity.

Bill Allen is the former CEO of VECO Corp. who pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska politicians. Though Mark Allen never faced charges, he was embroiled in the case -- his father testified that Allen paid off a state legislator -- but as part of a plea agreement, Bill Allen secured his son’s protection.

Mark Allen won’t discuss details of his activities with VECO or his father’s case. The entire venture in Alaska was never his idea of fun. Two decades ago, Allen had been a respected horse trainer in New Mexico who seemed to have a sixth sense in the barns.

“My dad told me, ‘Give me five years, and we’ll sell the company,’ ” Allen says. “So I went up there for five years, and then he said five more. I said OK. At end of that five, I said, ‘Sorry, Pop. I got to get back to horses.’ ”

The Allen family sold the company in 2007, and Mark Allen reportedly walked away with $30 million, before taxes. That money helped Allen and Blach pony up $400,000 for Mine That Bird last year.

You ask anyone around here, Mark Allen is extremely warm, generous and just about as honest as the day is long, says Susan Hunter, who runs a ranch just down the road.

Allen keeps a garage of about 10 motorcycles -- four Harley-Davidsons and a half-dozen custom-mades, he says -- and Tuesday, he rode one of them from Louisville, Ky., to Baltimore. It’s a shared interest for Allen and Woolley, who’s not even among New Mexico’s winningest trainers.

About 25 years ago, Woolley and Allen met at a bar in Raton, N.M., called Annie Get Your Guns. A disagreement escalated, and Allen was about to fight the entire bar when Woolley rose from his stool and joined in. Licking their wounds later, they struck up a friendship and later, a business relationship when Allen returned to horse racing.

He seems as surprised as anyone at how far he has come. In fact, upon Mine That Bird’s arrival at Pimlico Race Course on Tuesday, Woolley quipped: “I called a friend while we were driving in with the police escort. I told him, ‘This is the first time the police are leading me instead of chasing me.’ ”

He was born Bennie Woolley, and while the race program calls him Chip, those around the barns know him as Shifty.

“He works hard; he’s pretty hands-on but he plays hard too. He’s not afraid to have fun,” said Joel Marr, a fellow New Mexico trainer. “He gallops a lot of his own horses. Out here, that’s not uncommon. You’re not going to see [Bob] Baffert or [Wayne] Lukas get on their horses and gallop. And you won’t see them hop in the truck and take them somewhere either. Everyone made a big deal about Chip driving 21 hours to Kentucky, but here, when something needs getting done, you do it.”

Woolley crashed his motorcycle last winter, suffered 12 fractures in his right leg from knee to ankle, and was the only cowboy in Kentucky walking Churchill Downs on crutches.

Marr first invited the sports spotlight on New Mexico last year. He trained Peppers Pride, who won all 19 of her races, the only North American horse to do so. Marr says he isn’t surprised that in this sport of kings, some might be looking down their noses at some cowboys from the Southwest.

“When you say New Mexico, they hear Mexico,” Marr says. “When my filly won 19 races, people would say, ‘What are you all doing down there in Mexico?’ What do you say to that? ‘Oh, just drinking tequila, speaking Spanish and avoiding the water.’ ”

The final piece of the horse’s New Mexico puzzle is jockey Mike Smith, who will ride Mine That Bird for the first time Saturday. Calvin Borel was atop the horse in Louisville, but in the Preakness, Borel will ride Rachel Alexandra, the opening-line favorite.

Smith is the Hall of Fame jockey who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby on fellow 50-to-1 longshot Giacomo. His credentials are top-notch, and Allen says Smith wears a nice pair of cowboy boots, so he fits in perfectly.

While the Derby winner may not be the betting favorite Saturday, his owners know they’ll have at least one state on their side. At a track in Hobbs, N.M., they’ve invented a drink named after Mine That Bird. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called the owners last week to congratulate them. And friends and strangers drive in front of the owners’ Roswell ranches honking their horns.

“It’s different this week,” says Blach, the vet. “This time, were going into the race thinking we can win.”

--

rick.maese@gmail.com


Advertisement