NEW YORK - In the days leading to the Kentucky Derby, just about everybody ignored the little gelding tucked away in his stall at Churchill Downs.
Mine That Bird, a latecomer to the Derby field, had recently arrived in Louisville after a 19-hour trailer ride from New Mexico, his trainer Chip Woolley doing the driving despite a broken right leg fused with a metal plate and 12 screws.
This was not big news, though, not with top 3-year-olds such as I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Friesan Fire and Dunkirk receiving all the attention.
A lot has changed in five weeks: Mine That Bird won the Derby by an astonishing 63/4 lengths at 50-1 odds, came up a length short of filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness and now is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.
From long shot to people's choice, Mine That Bird has become one of racing's most popular racehorses, topped only by the sensational filly who won't be running the final leg of the Triple Crown.
When Woolley led Mine That Bird off a van and toward his barn at Belmont Park the other day, there were about 50 reporters there to record every step.
"This is a lot different than when we arrived at Churchill Downs," Woolley said. "Nobody even came to see me for the first week."
Two days before Mine That Bird tries to win the 11/2-mile Belmont and make Calvin Borel the first jockey to win the Triple Crown on different horses, Woolley was asked if he ever thought he'd be in the national spotlight after a 25 years of training horses.
"It absolutely never crossed my mind," he said yesterday. "It was a major surprise."
Starting with the Derby.
Mine That Bird went into the race 0 for 2 at Sunland Park in New Mexico after earning the 2-year-old championship in Canada, then finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
A son of 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, Mine That Bird was dismissed as the 17th choice in the 19-horse Derby field. Even Tom Durkin, who called the race on national television, was late in spotting him along the rail.
"The only person more surprised than me winning the Derby seemed to be you," Woolley told Durkin at Wednesday's post-position draw. Durkin took the ribbing in stride, replying, "There are many times I wish I'd seen that race."
Racing fans were still not convinced after the Derby. And when Rachel Alexandra, winner of the Kentucky Oaks by 201/4 lengths the day before the Derby, was purchased by Jess Jackson and entered in the Preakness, the filly and Borel took the star turns. The filly won the Preakness by a diminishing length over 6-1 third choice Mine That Bird, but the gelding proved his Derby win was no fluke.
A field of 10 is set for the Belmont, with Flying Private the only other horse to compete in the Derby and Preakness. The other Derby runners in the field are Chocolate Candy, Summer Bird, Dunkirk and Mr. Hot Stuff. The other Preakness runner is Luv Gov.
Charitable Man, the 3-1 second choice, and a pair of long shots trained by Nick Zito - Brave Victory and Miner's Escape - fill out the field.
Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Charitable Man, was initially a skeptic just like everybody else. "He happened to be in the same barn I was in at Churchill," McLaughlin said. "And to be honest, with Charitable Man and Mine That Bird, you're looking at a magnificent animal as opposed to a small gelding that cost $9,500 as a yearling. But he's a runner, and he's a gutsy little horse who tries hard and might have won the Preakness with a little cleaner trip."
Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is the 2-1 favorite for tomorrow's's Grade I, $1 million 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. The race will be televised by 6ABC, with coverage starting at 5 p.m.
Jerry Hollendorfer Garrett Gomez 10-1
Jenny Craig-owned colt was distant fifth in Derby when ridden by Mike Smith. Skipped Preakness and has had four workouts at Belmont Park.
2. Dunkirk Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 4-1
The lightly-raced colt stumbled and was steadied in Derby, where he finished a dismal 11th, beaten by 19 lengths. Gets jockey switch from Edgar Prado to Velazquez.
3. Mr. Hot Stuff Eion Harty Edgar Prado 15-1
Finished 15th, beaten by 23 lengths in Derby. Gets jockey switch from Velazquez to Prado. Only non-Derby races were on synthetic surface.
4. Summer Bird Tim Ice Kent Desormeaux 12-1
Was sixth, beaten by 13 lengths in Derby. The late-running colt gets new jockey in Desormeaux, who's had his heartbreaks in this race with Big Brown last year and Real Quiet in 1998.
5. Luv Gov D. Wayne Lukas Miguel Mena 20-1
Was distant eighth in Preakness. Only win was a maiden race in slop last month at Churchill. Was 25-1 in Preakness, could be 50-1 here.
6. Charitable Man K. McLaughlin Alan Garcia 3-1
Was impressive in winning Peter Pan last month, the local Belmont Stakes prep. Has two Grade II wins in only four career starts and lone loss was off layoff in Blue Grass Stakes on synthetic at Kenneland.
7. Mine That Bird Chip Woolley Calvin Borel 2-1
Calvin Borel jumps back aboard the Derby winner after jockey switched to Rachel Alexandra, who won the Preakness, beating him by a length. His daddy, Birdstone, ruined Smarty Jones' Triple Crown bid in 2004.
8. Flying Private D. Wayne Lukas Julien Leparoux 12-1
Was no factor in Derby, finishing 19th, but came back big in Preakness, finishing fourth, beaten by only four lengths. The late-running son of Fusaichi Pegasus will get some support on the tote board.
9. Miner's Escape Nick Zito Jose Lezcano 15-1
Colt won Preakness prep last month but hasn't run very fast in any of his races. But he should be on the pace, same as D'Tara, who wired the Belmont field last year for Zito in shocking Big Brown at 39-1.
10. Brave Victory Nick Zito Rajiv Maragh 15-1
Zito may have a better chance for an upset with this one, who was third in the Peter Pan and was competitive in ultrafast Swale Stakes at Gulfstream.