Mine That Bird is by no means the equine equivalent of a George Clooney or a Brad Pitt. Small in stature. Crooked feet. The ‘Bird’ doesn’t possess leading man looks.
What does make him attractive, though, is a story. A compelling one. A tale that is tailor-made for a Hollywood script. It’s a story that began on Canada’s most historic racetrack and was punctuated by a storybook finish in the Run for the Roses.
For those who know Mine That Bird best, it’s been a remarkable journey.
Constant Montpellier had admiration for the son of Birdstone well before he made his debut on July 20, 2008, at Woodbine Racetrack.
“I liked him the very first time I got in the saddle,” recalls Montpellier, the first jockey to get a leg up on Mine That Bird. “He was a little guy when he was two and they told me had crooked feet. I never looked. I didn’t really need to. He just did whatever you asked him to do. Those are the ones you want to ride.”
Prior to Mine That Bird’s first race at six furlongs on the Woodbine main track, David Cotey, a well-known horseman in Canadian racing circles, told Montpellier they had a good one on their hands. How good, he wasn’t quite certain.
It might take a race or two to prove it to the racing world, but Cotey was convinced the Kentucky-bred would carve out a solid career, perhaps winning a local stakes race some day. He would take three stakes in all at Woodbine along with top honours as Canada’s champion two-year-old male in 2008.
Cotey was ecstatic. And why wouldn’t he be? After all, he had paid a paltry $9,500 for the horse from the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October Yearling Sale.
But would Cotey or Montpellier have ever believed there was to be a stirring score in the Kentucky Derby and a Hollywood movie depicting his life story? Not by a longshot. “No way,” admits Montpellier. “But I’m not complaining. It’s unbelievable.”
‘50 to 1’ will open in theaters on March 21. There is more than enough to grab the attention of any moviegoer, horse racing fan or not.
Underdog story? Check. Colourful characters? Indeed. Drama on a big stage? Yes. An Oscar winner on-board? It has that, too.
The film, which was shot in New Mexico over 30 locations throughout the state, tells the tale of a group of ragtag cowboys who band together to buy a horse and then take on the sport’s elite on the world stage. It’s directed, produced and co-written by Jim Wilson, who also happens to own racehorses.
Wilson won the Academy Award for Best Picture for Dances With Wolves, which he produced. He also produced The Bodyguard, Wyatt Earp, Swing Vote, Mr. Brooks and Message in a Bottle. His previous directing credits include the critically-acclaimed documentary, Laffit: All About Winning, the story of renowned jockey Laffit Pincay Jr.
Skeet Ulrich (Jericho, Scream, As Good As It Gets), Christian Kane (Leverage), William Devane (24, The Dark Knight Rises), Todd Lowe (True Blood, Gilmore Girls) and Madelyn Deutch have starring roles. Jockey Calvin Borel, who piloted Mine That Bird to Derby glory, plays himself.
Montpellier, who moved back to his native Quebec after hanging up his tack in 2009, has watched the video of him guiding Mine That Bird to his first career win (August 4, 2008) 100 times, if not more.
The same goes for that Kentucky Derby triumph. “I only rode in a couple of races at Woodbine on Derby day and they were later in the afternoon,” recalls Montpellier. “I was in the last race and I hurried back to the room so I could shower up and catch the Derby.”
In the seconds before the gate opened and the horses began their 1 1/4-mile journey, Montpellier, along with several other riders, stood huddled in front of a television, all ready to cheer on a familiar face.
“Fight the good fight,” Montpellier remembers thinking. “Show them you belong.”
He was certain Mine That Bird would afford himself well against his higher profile and more accomplished rivals, even though his odds suggested he had little chance. Winning it all, though? That never crossed Montpellier’s mind.
“I just wanted him to run a good race, to show that he could be competitive,” offers Montpellier. “But he was so far back along the backstretch. I thought it’s just not going to be his day. And then…I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Under a sly, rail-skimming ride from Borel, Mine That Bird, now trained by Bennie Woolley Jr., a former Quarter Horse trainer who spent time on the rodeo circuit as a bareback rider, caught everyone, including Montpellier and legendary race announcer Tom Durkin, off-guard.
Mine That Bird’s burst began around the far turn as he slipped past Join in the Dance to take control. By the time Durkin noticed Mine That Bird, he had three lengths on the field.
Nearly 600 miles away, in the Woodbine jockey’s room, Montpellier was trying to process what was unfolding. The little horse he remembered now seemed larger than life.
“I was in disbelief,” remembers Montpellier. “There he is, opening up and he’s going to win the Kentucky Derby. I said, ‘It’s Birdie!’ I was ecstatic. It hit me after he crossed the wire, ‘That’s the horse I rode.’”
One floor away, in a racetrack bar, Cotey, along with horsemen and fans, were also watching. None were in their seats. They were all on their feet, cheering wildly.
What he saw nearly brought him to tears.
“When I watched him closing on the rail, I yelled, ‘Here he comes!”’ recalls Cotey, who had sold the horse to the New Mexico ownership group after a win in the Grey Stakes in October of 2008. “I almost lost my voice. I was just so happy for him and his connections.
“I was so happy for him,” gushed Cotey, moments after the win. “I was ecstatic. I’d have loved to have been down there to give him a big kiss.”
It was to be Mine That Bird’s last trip to the winner’s circle. After finishing second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, he would race seven more times. His final effort came in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile when he finished tenth.
“We did well with him,” says Cotey. “He always brought his A-game to the races. He was a nice horse to be around and work with.”
A very special horse, Montpellier insists.
“When I look back at my career, I see the same things all riders would, ups and downs, good and bad,” offers Montpellier, who rode ‘Birdie’ just twice. “But now, after being out of the game for a few years, I see that first win as one of the most significant in my career. It was an ordinary race, a maiden race. You never give much thought to those. But after what he did, that race takes on so much more meaning. I could watch it every day and I’d never be bored by it.”
Soon enough, Montpellier will have something else to add to his recollections of ‘Birdie.’
“Can you believe it?” he says with a chuckle. “He has a movie about him. It’s crazy.”
And just what Hollywood dreams are made of.