Bird baffled Baffert

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

BALTIMORE -- The next time someone contacts Bob Baffert with a Canadian horse for sale, you can bet the hall of fame trainer will pay attention.

If he had listened a little closer this past summer, it would be the white-haired Californian who is in charge of this year's Kentucky Derby winner, not Bennie (Chip) Woolley, the previously little-known cowboy from New Mexico.

Baffert admitted yesterday that he was offered Canadian champion Mine That Bird before the horse won the Grey Stakes at Woodbine for then owner/trainer, Dave Cotey.

But Baffert balked at the price, his gelded status and, most of all, the fact that he didn't trust the significance of the modest horse's winning streak at the Toronto track.

"I looked at him, but it would have been tough to buy a gelding for ($400,000 US) coming from Woodbine," Baffert said yesterday outside the Pimlico Stakes barn where the 134th Preakness Stakes will be run tomorrow. "(The new owners) took a big chance."

That they did and cashed in, too, thanks to the gelding's stunning upset at odds of 50-1 in the opening jewel of the Triple Crown two weeks ago in Louisville. Making it doubly painful for Baffert was the fact that his horse, Pioneer of the Nile, was second.

Mine That Bird has created a buzz north and south of the border for his humble journey from Woodbine to his new home in Mexico to the Derby winner's circle. Since then, it has been a whirlwind for Woolley and partners, including a cover story in Sports Illustrated, countless media appearances and a trip here to prepare for the middle jewel.

As a three-time Derby winner, Baffert is always on the lookout for new talent. But a cursory look at Mine That Bird's Woodbine form, didn't impress him.

"I thought: 'Well, it's Woodbine ... synthetic tracks throw you off," Baffert said. "You don't know what you really have."

Woolley said that, unlike Baffert, he did some extended research, visiting Cotey at Woodbine for more than just a look at the horse in its stall.

"I stayed up there about a week, went up and watched the horse train for four or five days to see how things were," Woolley said. "All along, I thought the horse had a lot more in him."

Woolley said he has spoken with Cotey since the Derby to congratulate the Woodbine trainer on his role in passing on the early lessons to this unlikely star. And the $400,000 purchase has been a nice return for all parties.

"It worked out great for everyone," Woolley said. "Dave made good money, we made good money. Everybody came out a winner."

The $1.4-million winner's share from Kentucky didn't exactly buy him respect here, however, as the son of Birdstone is the co-third choice in the morning-line for the Preakness at odds of 6-1.

There are plenty around who think the pint-sized gelding may be a one-race wonder, including another hall of fame horseman, D. Wayne Lukas.

"When you get a race where nobody is finishing and get one that relishes the racetrack, it always looks more spectacular than it is," Lukas said of the Derby shocker.

"They've got to rack 'em up again in the other alley as we say in bowling and it might be a little different."

To his credit, hindsight and a little humility have changed Baffert's view of Canada's champion two-year-old. After getting blitzed by him in Kentucky, Baffert returned home and watched all of Mine That Bird's races on tape -- including those north of the border.

"That horse came from Canada where he was a champion," Baffert said. "He was already a good horse. I went back and looked at his races and thought this little (bleep) is for real.

"A bad horse does not win the Kentucky Derby."


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