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Churchill Downs: Where Chip Woolley will always have celebrity status

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Chip Woolley led Mine That Bird around the paddock at Churchill Downs two days before the 2013 Kentucky Derby. (AP)
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Chip Woolley led Mine That Bird around the paddock at Churchill Downs two days before the 2013 Kentucky Derby. (AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – He will be here Saturday. Of course.

Chip Woolley has made the annual trip back to his happy place, Churchill Downs. The mustachioed cowboy will watch the race which five years ago made him somebody, for the first and perhaps the only time in his life. He was wearing the trademark black Stetson in the barn area Wednesday to make sure he's recognized, and it works. Everywhere he goes in this town during Kentucky Derby week, the horse-savvy fans will flock to him – for a handshake, for pictures, for a chance to reminisce, for his insight into this year's race.

He is living history here, a quirky entry in the 140-year lore of America's greatest horse race.

He is a symbol, too. A symbol for every dreamer out there who believes that crazy Derby hopes sometimes are realized.

"It's just exciting to be back for it," said the man who trained Mine That Bird to Kentucky Derby victory in 2009 at jaw-dropping 50-1 odds. "Like it or not, you become a piece of the Derby when you win it."

Woolley likes it. Make no mistake. That's why he leaves his modest racing stable behind for a few days every spring, returning here and reliving the two minutes that took him far beyond his wildest dreams.

[Related: Kentucky Derby favorite's owners turned down $6 million offer]

There won't be much else for Chip Woolley to do at Churchill on Saturday beyond Being Chip Woolley. He has no horses to run in the big races. Odds are prohibitive against him ever having another 3-year-old run for the roses on the first Saturday in May.

Virtually the only news Woolley has made in the five years since his Derby victory was in 2011, when he was escorted by security out of the Prairie Meadows casino in Altoona, Iowa, after publicly urinating next to a slot machine. Not really the kind of headline anyone aspires to making.

And even that wouldn't have made any news if Woolley hadn't won the Derby.

After this week, it's back to the hardscrabble existence of a low-level thoroughbred racing trainer. Life has gone on, and pretty much gone back to normal.

Except for that movie thing.

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The real Chip Woolley stood in a small paddock area at the Kentucky Derby Museum, holding the leather shank that kept a frisky Mine That Bird from bolting around the yard.

The Hollywood Chip Woolley was called over for a photo op with the man and the horse. Actor Skeet Ulrich skittishly put a hand on Mine That Bird's neck and then quickly pulled it back when it looked like the animal might take a bite out of him.

Keeping it real was not worth the potential loss of fingers for the actor.

Ulrich is no horseman; he only played one in "50 To 1," the recently released movie that chronicles Mine That Bird's rise from New Mexico also-ran to racing immortality. This mid-April appearance brought together the real and dramatic principals in a story that is improbable even by thoroughbred racing's routinely far-fetched standards.

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Chip Woolley pets Kentucky Derby winner Mind That Bird after the Breeders' Cup draw in 2009. (AP)

"I was kind of against it myself," Woolley said of the movie idea. "I wasn't sure I was going to like it. So many movies take away from the horse and what the horse accomplished."

After meeting director Jim Wilson and co-writer Faith Conroy, he came around. They knew horse racing – Wilson owns some horses – and they tapped into Woolley's knowledge in an attempt to make the film as realistic as possible (while maintaining Hollywood's longstanding poetic license with the storyline). Woolley even had drinks with Ulrich, and he was a consultant on how to realistically stage a bar fight, since that was the way the owner was introduced to Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen.

"Chip guided me along the way," Ulrich said. "We have a beautiful story that we told, and it lives."

Still, nothing fully prepared Woolley for seeing a Hollywood portrayal of himself on the big screen.

"It seems a little surreal when you're watching it up there," he said.

With Wilson, Conroy and actors Ulrich and Todd Lowe, the Churchill visit was the last stop on the promotional tour for the movie. Then it was on to the next project. For Woolley, it was time to return to life post-miracle.

Which is to say, pretty much the same anonymous, hardscrabble existence he was leading before the miracle of May 2009. Winning the Derby and having an actor play you in a movie are great, but they don't pay the bills in perpetuity.

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Woolley has a horse running Thursday at Prairie Meadows in Altoona. Third race. Tearnupthunder, a 6-year-old gelding, will go in an $11,000 claimer. He has another horse, Winnie Cappella, entered Friday in a $15,000 claimer.

It is the kind of low-level, glamorless racing Woolley did in New Mexico until Mine That Bird walked into his barn at Sunland Downs like a four-legged lottery ticket in late 2008.

It was a scratch-off ticket, though. Nobody knew how much it was worth at the time.

The horse had good breeding and had some significant stakes races in Canada under previous ownership, but New Mexico was no place to find a Kentucky Derby contender. Woolley and the gelding's principal owners, Leonard Blach and Mark Allen, were pointing him to the Sunland Derby, the big race at their local track in late March of '09.

That didn't work out too well. Mine That Bird finished fourth, beaten by three horses that never made a ripple on the Triple Crown trail.

[Also: Bob Baffert knows agony, ecstasy of Kentucky Derby all too well]

But the horse's connections decided to take a swing at the Kentucky Derby anyway, since he had the graded earnings to make the field. The hardest part was getting there – Woolley had a badly broken leg from a motorcycle accident, and he propped the leg up sideways in his truck while personally driving Mine That Bird all the way from New Mexico to Louisville.

Upon arrival at Churchill Downs, the horse was almost completely ignored. The only curiosity Mine That Bird roused was his human connections – a bunch of cowboys, including one on crutches hobbling to and from the track in the morning to watch his horse gallop.

"You come in here pretty humble," Woolley said. "We didn't have any plans of winning, but I thought we'd run deep."

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Chip Woolley is shown giving instructions to a jockey on Mine that Bird at Santa Anita Park. (AP file photo)

The unrecognized stroke of genius the group made was grabbing local jockey Calvin Borel as their rider. The inimitable Cajun played himself in the movie, which was perfect.

Borel knew the Churchill track better than anyone, and his penchant for riding on the extreme inside would turn out to be a winning strategy in this Derby. But all hope was nearly lost right away, when Mine That Bird was jostled and shuffled back by other horses coming out of the gate.

"I was hoping for the best trip and that got wiped out right away," Woolley said. "It was a horrible feeling. You just felt empty. Calvin and I had talked about being back 20 lengths, not 30."

But Borel gravitated to the rail and saved ground before making his move. The overhead camera shot shows Mine That Bird making a remarkable move, inhaling horses along the hard-beaten ground far inside. It was a daring ride by Borel, and none of his competitors shut him off to keep him from taking the lead.

When Mine That Bird burst into the clear and pulled away in the stretch, the shock was audible from the massive grandstand. Thousands of people collectively wondered, "Who's that?" This was a Buster Douglas shot, a complete shocker.

The cowboys from New Mexico had done it. Disregarded all week, they laughed their way to the winner's circle.

"Everyone in their life feels like they're an underdog in some way," Woolley said. "Everyone has a bit of that in them. That's why people identified with us."

And that has become Chip Woolley's identity: underdog Kentucky Derby winner. He slips back into that role for a few days every year at his happy place, Churchill Downs, where he forever will be Somebody.

 

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