“You can’t win it if you ain’t in it,” says thoroughbred jockey Calvin Borel, portraying himself in the film 50 to 1, which is based on the true story of Mine That Bird’s stunning Kentucky Derby victory in 2009.
Then there’s a scene where, in grudgingly agreeing to ship the horse from New Mexico to Churchill Downs for the sport’s biggest race, Mine That Bird’s co-owner, Leonard “Doc” Blach, hoists a glass of tequila and says, “May God and Don Julio help us.”
Both Borel and Braun’s proclamations are abundantly applicable to the Derby, which will be run this Saturday at Churchill Downs. The race is, at its core, a total crapshoot involving 20 relatively untested horses that takes a lot of luck — and perhaps some prayer and liquid courage — to win.
And no horse proved that quite like Mine That Bird.
Bar brawlin’ and card sharkin’ in the desert
50 to 1 begins, fittingly, in a bar in the New Mexican desert, where a rich wildcatter named Mark Allen has initiated a brawl. A fellow patron, who we later learn is a local horse trainer by the name of Chip Woolley, helps Allen out of this pickle and bids him adieu.
Flash forward to Woolley (Skeet Ulrich, doing a fine Billy Bob Thornton imitation), getting lit at a different bar, where he wins a boot full of cash “card sharkin’” with some locals. The next morning, hungover, he watches every single one of his horses lose at Sunland Park, a backwater if there ever was one, before repairing to (yet another) bar at the track, where he hears a TV commentator talking about how well one local owner’s horses have been running.
That owner turns out to be Allen (Christian Kane), whom Woolley — having traveled to Allen’s training track, hat in hand — asks if he has any horses he could train. Allen sends him in his private jet (where Woolley continues to aggressively imbibe) to Canada to check out a horse named Mine That Bird who’s won a few stakes races north of the border and can be had for half a million dollars.
“Bird,” as the horse is called, is small of stature and has a habit of breaking out of his stall. He’s also a gelding, which means he’ll be worth nothing in the breeding shed after his racing career is over. Still, after seeing Bird run half a mile in 46 seconds flat, Woolley recommends that Allen purchase the horse, and Allen — in partnership with Doc Blach (Wiliam Devane) — obliges.
Things don’t start out well. Bird runs a distant 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before finishing fourth and second, respectively, in a pair of stakes races back at Sunland. Woolley responds to the latter defeat by firing his jockey and driving his motorcycle into a guard rail and breaking one of his legs.
Baffert portrayed with buffoonish glee
Ever the generous benefactor, Allen moves Woolley into his ranch estate to recuperate and keep an eye on Bird. Allen then gets a call from a Churchill Downs official telling him that Bird has qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Allen hangs up, thinking he’s been the victim of a prank call. But then the Churchill official calls back and explains that Bird has indeed made the field, by virtue of his Canadian stakes wins as a 2-year-old.
After Blach agrees to ship Bird to Louisville instead of running him in the Lone Star Derby, Allen pairs Woolley, who’s been forced to hobble around on crutches, with a sassy female exercise rider named Alex (Madelyn Deutch). It is then that 50 to 1, somewhat clumsily, morphs into a road movie that teases a romantic plot without permitting its consummation.
Once at Churchill, the New Mexican “cowboys” find themselves targeted by some classist barbs from trainer Bob Baffert (played with buffoonish glee by Bruce Wayne Eckelman). Just days before the race, the cowboys still haven’t found a jockey to ride Bird, but they luck out when Borel — two years removed from winning his first Derby aboard Street Sense — loses his mount due to the horse getting injured.
“You ready to take on these blue bloods?” Woolley says in his pitch to Borel, a feral, animated Cajun from the Louisiana bush who pairs perfectly with the New Mexican misfits.
Perfect strategy for ‘Borail’
By this point, Woolley has come to the realization that Bird likes to save ground and come from way off the pace, which, as “Borail” proved in his victorious 2007 ride, suits the jockey perfectly. What ensues is perhaps the most riveting come-from-behind victory in horse racing history (and the best scene in 50 to 1), with Mine That Bird among the three longest shots — a $2 bet on his nose paid $103.20 — to have ever prevailed on the first Saturday in May.
Aside from shots of Woolley & Co. commenting on the race from the grandstand, 50 to 1 simply recycles actual footage of the race — including Tom Durkin’s infamous stretch call, in which he doesn’t spot Mine That Bird until the horse has taken the lead in the stretch.
It sounds cliche, but Bird really did make it look as though the horses in front of him were standing still when he made his late move, which the overhead view of the race captures most poignantly. But while the race itself is enough to make anyone’s eyes well up, the floodgates really open during Borel’s post-race interview with Donna Brothers. His tears are those of grief and glory, as he’s recently lost his parents and wishes they could be there to witness his achievement.
Where are they now?
After nearly getting left without a mount in the Derby, Borel had his pick of winners — Bird and Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra — to ride in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. He chose the frontrunning filly, who overcame a furious stretch run from Bird to win in Baltimore. The Preakness runner-up went on to complete an impressive Triple Crown campaign with a third-place finish (with Borel back aboard) in the Belmont Stakes.
The Kentucky Derby would prove to be Bird’s only win for Allen and Woolley, who, like Borel, are still actively involved in the sport. Woolley was recently in the midst of one of his best campaigns at Arizona’s Turf Paradise when he received a six-month suspension after one of his employees was caught injecting a horse with an undisclosed substance in his barn.
Borel won another Derby in 2010 before getting arrested for drunk driving three times in 10 years. Now 55, he races primarily at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park, where he’d won just once — on May 1 — in 48 tries as of Tuesday. As for Bird, who’s 16 now, he currently toils as a remarkably overqualified stable pony for Allen in Texas.
Photo: Pat McDonogh/Louisville Courier Journal