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, Ky., 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 6¾ lengths at 50-1 odds, came up a length short of the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness and now is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
From long shot to people's choice, Mine That Bird has become one of racing's most popular horses, 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 media members 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 the Belmont, Woolley was asked if he ever thought he'd be in the spotlight after 25 years of training horses.
"It absolutely never crossed my mind," he said.
A field of 10 is set, 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, Brave Victory and Miner's Escape fill out the field.
Mike Watchmaker, the national handicapper for Daily Racing Form, had a simple explanation why Mine That Bird has become so popular.
"He won the Derby, ran huge in the Preakness and the Preakness winner is not here," he said.