For decades, C.V. Whitney and Alfred Vanderbilt, sportsmen of another era who were endowed with millions of dollars when a dollar's value was quite different than it is today, pursued the dream of winning a Kentucky Derby. They subscribed to another old adage commonly used by horsemen: "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best."
The best they got in America's marquee horse race were photo finishes: Whitney's Phalanx beaten a head by JetPilot in 1947 and Vanderbilt's great Native Dancer edged by the same margin by Dark Star in '53.
The result of Saturday's 135th running of the Run for the Roses reaffirms that this race is non-discriminatory. Its winners truly seem randomly selected.
Oh, the bluebloods haven't been shut out. Whitney's aunt, Mrs. Payne Whitney, won two Derbies and William Woodward three in the '30s and '40s. More recently, the Hancocks of Claiborne Farm won with Swale in '84 and Paul Mellon triumphed in '93 with Sea Hero.
But the Derby has also been won by Katherine and Jack Price, a mom-and-pop operation that took a mare in payment of a board bill, bred her to an obscure stallion for a few hundred dollars and came up with Carry Back; Edgar Caibett, a Venezuelan businessman who sent Canonero II to Kentucky with a trainer who spoke no English; and Dennis Diaz, a neophyte less than two years into the business who started by buying a mare with a foal by her side later named Spend a Buck.
However, perhaps no more unlikely team has stood on the presentation stand above Churchill Downs' winners circle on the first Saturday in May than Mine That Bird's co-owner Mark Allen and trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr.
They met by accident.
"We were in a bar," Allen said. "I started a fight and Chip helped me out." When asked about the result, Allen said, "We came out on top, but it took a while."
Woolley added, "For a while, it didn't look too good."
From this chance encounter developed a friendship nurtured by common interests in horses and motorcycles. Two months ago, Woolley was in an accident involving his motorcycle, and the result was a broken right leg that still has him on crutches.
The business side of the relationship took an upward turn when Allen and his ownership partner, New Mexico veterinarian Dr. Leonard Blach, decided to buy a horse they hoped would compete in stakes company. Learning the 2-year-old Canadian champion Mine That Bird was for sale, they dispatched Woolley to look him over. Approved by the trainer, a $400,000 deal came together quickly.
Until Saturday afternoon, it appeared the Canadian partnership, headed by David Cotey, had made out like bandits. They had purchased Mine That Bird for $9,500, won $304,381 with him and sold him for big money. The gelding failed to win in his three initial starts for the New Mexicans.
Meanwhile, Woolley, who had never saddled a horse in a graded stakes race before this Derby, was having a difficult year: one winner in 32 tries.
Everything changed Saturday.
"We just wanted to buy a horse we could have some fun with," Allen said. "We've had more fun than we hoped for."