LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Before he ever set hoof to racetrack, Canadian champion Mine That Bird was unfathomable furlongs from being a Kentucky Derby prospect.
He stood a little crooked, was too frisky for his own good and was bought, more or less, to be a modestly profitable racehorse for a Woodbine trainer quite adept at that game.
Yet there he was on a lazy afternoon yesterday outside his Churchill Downs barn, oblivious to the fuss building for tomorrow's opening jewel of the Triple Crown.
Of more pressing concern, really, was the whereabouts of his latest trainer, Bennie (Chip) Woolley, as feed time approached. A thoroughbred has got to eat after all, regardless of his roots.
The horse, who won three stakes races at Woodbine in 2008 on his way to winning a Sovereign Award as Canada's top two-year-old, has been roundly dismissed as a sideshow to the storied race.
There have been no shortage of expert handicappers who laughed off his lethargic workout earlier in the week, openly wondering why the long shot is even part of the show.
We'll know late tomorrow just how (or if) he is outclassed, but for now, his story is as intriguing as that of any of the 20 horses slated to run in the 11/4-mile classic.
No matter how high his odds drift, what a trip it has been for Mine That Bird.
From Woodbine, where he learned to run well and win for former owner and trainer Dave Cotey, to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup in November, to New Mexico after yet another trainer change. And finally, the crazy itinerary that has landed him here at the famed ground of American racing.
"I'm just so tickled that me and my horse are now going to be part of the history of the Kentucky Derby," said Woolley, a former bareback rodeo rider turned horse trainer. "We're going to do it and they won't ever be able to take that away from us.
"It's down to racin' luck and what happens."
Sometimes in horse racing, the losers are as strong a story as the winners. Sometimes, the everyman's horse is as popular as those owned by movers and shakers and insanely rich sheiks.
As a rule, this business isn't so egalitarian, of course. Money spent improves the odds at success as does exquisite breeding. But at post time tomorrow, Mine That Bird, he of the humble beginnings and $9,500 purchase price, will line up a few stalls down from Dunkirk who, at a cost of $3.7 million US, is the second-priciest horse ever to contest the Derby.
The gelded son of Birdstone began his journey at Woodbine with Cotey taking a shot -- and not an expensive one -- on a horse who was far from perfect.
"He 'toed out' a little bit and he didn't exactly stand straight at first," Cotey said of the youngster's build, which in part led to his bargain price.
"He was not the most correct in terms of conformation but there is a great temperament to him."
Under saddle, he was far more fond of the fillies than of running at first, which prompted Cotey to have the colt snipped of his manhood.
Here's where you need to know a little of how Cotey operates. The majority of owners wouldn't dare have a big-stakes prospect gelded other than in extreme circumstances. A Derby winner, after all, would be worth mammoth money as a stallion.
But when Cotey buys, he deals in volume, and can't always afford to wait long for a horse whose mind isn't readily on his business. Hence the son of Birdstone going from colt to gelding before he ever raced.
The day after Mine That Bird won the Grey Stakes -- one of Canada's most important tests for two-year-olds -- he was never worth more. It was his third consecutive stakes score and it came in a race that has produced Derby starters (and one winner) in the past. So when the New Mexico group of Double Eagle Ranch and Bueno Suerte Equine came calling with an offer, Cotey listened.
Mine That Bird already had earned $304,000 and when he was able to hammer out another $400,000 from the interested party, the horse trader in Cotey cashed in.
"Selling enabled us to go out and buy a lot of other horses," said Cotey, whose horses run under the name Dominion Bloodstock. "He allowed us to get some bills paid."
Mine That Bird and his current connections have endured their share of ridicule this week, but without pretense or overblown optimism, Woolley has enjoyed it like the personable cowboy he is. Most of the trainers have their colts shipped here in fancy horse vans or cargo planes but Woolley hitched his horse trailer to his pickup and drove the 1,500 miles from Sunland Park near El Paso, Tex., himself.
"I'm a definite underdog, I know that," Woolley said. "But I do know that you can't win if you don't even try."
Mine That Bird will have his share of supporters here because one of the game's enduring attractions is the love of a long shot. And he'll have a solid support group at Woodbine, as well, when his former trainer and the man that made him gathers with a group of friends at the Finish Line Bar to root him on.
"We'll yell and cheer for him," Cotey said. "I know the horse and I know I helped develop him. I just hope he gets a piece of it."