Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mine That Bird's next flight: Almost Heaven

Trainer Bennie Woolley Jr. has revealed the schedule for Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner-up Mine That Bird, and it's a little bit off the typical beaten path for Grade 1 winners.

They're going to Disney World! ... No, wait. To West Virginia.

Woolley says Mine That Bird's next start will be in the West Virginia Derby-G2, to be run Aug. 1 at Mountaineer Park.

The West Virginia Derby is growing in stature, and Mine That Bird's entry could be the ultimate proof. The race has achieved Grade 2 status this year after several seasons as a Grade 3. The ascent is a bit amazing considering the race wasn't run at all from 1991-1997 and is staged at a track that is generally regarded as part of racing's second tier. But there's no quibbling with the purse: $750,000.

It's just that there are other alternatives that horsemen would usually prefer on that first weekend in August. Summer Bird, the "other son of Birdstone" who upset Mine That Bird in the Belmont Stakes, is pointed to the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational H.-G1 at Monmouth Park, according to trainer Tim Ice. Like the WV Derby, the Haskell is run at 9 furlongs. But it's a Grade 1 and carries an extra $250K in purse money; $1 million total.

And Charitable Man, who came in fourth with a less-than-stellar trip in the Belmont, will, according to his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, likely race next in the Aug. 1 Jim Dandy S.-G2 at Saratoga. Another 9-furlong event, and a Grade 2 like the West Virginia Derby, the Jim Dandy is an historic stakes run at America's mecca of summer horse racing, but it does carry the lowest purse of the three at $500,000.

Leave it to Woolley and owners Double Eagle Ranch (Mark Allen) and Buena Suerte Equine to take the road less-traveled. Or maybe just to take the road instead of a plane. Mine That Bird is presently back in Kentucky, and if Woolley is going to haul him around in a trailer behind his big pickup truck, the way they got from New Mexico's Sunland Park to Churchill Downs, then Mountaineer is closer than either Monmouth or Saratoga.

Somehow I doubt that was their reasoning.

It seems all three of the aforementioned horses, health willing, are destined for the Travers S.-G1 at the end of the Saratoga meet on Aug. 29. But all are taking different routes to get there. And despite its Grade 2 status and $750,000 purse, Mine That Bird's is the more obscure.

That isn't to say good horses haven't been in the race of late. Multiple G2-winner Zanjero defeated G3-winner Bwana Bull in the 2007 renewal. Eventual multi-millionaire Magna Graduate came in second to millionaire Real Dandy in 2005. Other winners in the past decade have included Sir Shackleton, Soto and Wiseman's Ferry; runners-up have been the likes of Pollard's Vision, Dynever and the ill-fated Florida Derby-G1 winner Hal's Hope.

I'm certain that Mountaineer Park is thrilled with the news that America's plucky little hero, Mine That Bird, will be in its marquee race. Maybe even with Calvin Borel aboard. And at least the Travers is shaping up to be a potential clash of 3-year-old titans as each tries to stamp his ticket to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Unless the $125,000 Mountaineer Mile Handicap on the same day is just too tempting.

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