Bet On That Horse: The story of "Mine That Bird"

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I don’t know about you, but I’m a little behind on my horse racing. Specifically speaking, the Kentucky Derby about ten years ago.

    In 2009 the winner of the 135th Kentucky Derby was “Mine That Bird” a small racehorse (as opposed to a large stallion) who had lost 31 of 32 races. The odds against him winning were 50 to 1. He was all but absent from any pre-game coverage simply because no one expected him to even place. When the 32nd race began their expectations were confirmed, he spent most of the race well behind the rest of the pack. The predictable story was playing out until the last turn when this little horse moved inside and shot out in front by almost nine lengths. There had not been a long-shot win like this since 1913.

    I couldn’t help wonder, what was different about that day? What made the horse ready to run like that? What was different about how the jockey rode him? I suppose what makes the idea of horse racing so attractive to me is that it is so collaborative. In motor racing, you win based on superior engineering and skill. But horse racing is wild. Sure, it involves training and the development of better techniques, but in the end, it is one animal riding another one. There’s a level of mutual submission that must be reached in horse racing. The jockey must have a relationship with their horse, and they need to know the strengths and limits for their horse. The horse also must trust the rider enough to accept the bit in his mouth and saddle on his back. But even then, there are no guarantees they will ever win.

    Mine That Bird was bred from noble stock, the son of Birdstone. He won his first race, the Grade III Grey Stakes at Woodbine in Canada. His owners expected big things from this young horse even after he lost his very next race. They could all see the talent but after losing race after race with different trainers and jockeys. I’m sure their confidence began to slip.

    Of course, you never know what a horse is thinking. You can’t ask the horse to diagnose what is going wrong. And a horse cannot understand human language so there is no way reason can help solve the problem. The only thing a horse knows is the touch and presence of the rider to guide him.

    I’ll never know what a horse is thinking, but I know what I’m thinking much of the time. Can people change? Can I change? Sure, there are stories about who my father is and what that means about me, but maybe I’m not a race-horse after all... and even if I am... the odds are 50 to 1 that I could break the pack of dark-horses breathing down my neck. The same destructive patterns plague me and keep me trapped. 

    When the 2009 Kentucky Derby was over, and record-books wrote down the name Mine That Bird next to the number one. When the initial shock wore off, the press swarmed the trainer “Chip” Woolley Jr. and Jockey Calvin Borel all wanting to know the answer to a singular question, “How on earth did you pull that off?” 

Borel answered, (and I heard the echo of my own “trainer”) “I rode him like a good horse.”