Can These Two Horses Save Racing?

On Saturday, Calvin Borel will attempt to become the first jockey ever to win the Triple Crown on multiple horses. The stories of those two animals, Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, and the people who care for them, say something about horse racing’s shady past—and, possibly, its future.

When Mine That Bird won this year’s Kentucky Derby, it was the second-greatest upset in the race’s history. After a second-place finish at the Preakness, the 2-year-old gelding is now the favorite to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and his jockey, Calvin Borel, has a chance to become the first jockey to win the Triple Crown on different horses. The story of Borel’s two champion horses, Mine That Bird and Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra (who is sitting out Saturday’s race), shines a light on the racing industry’s shady underbelly. Can the two horses also lead it to redemption?

The short and scrappy Mine That Bird—with his cowboy trainer and underdog attitude—has come to symbolize the hope of a dispirited America.

Mine That Bird’s rags-to-riches success has inspired many, but there are no white knights riding atop this little brown gelding: The duo that brought him to the national stage—breeder Mark Allen and trainer Chip Woolley—first met during a bar fight in New Mexico 25 years ago. In 2007, Allen received $30 million from the sale of Veco Corp., a company owned by his father, Bill Allen, who is currently serving time for bribing former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens. As part of his plea bargain, Bill negotiated immunity for his son; had Mark been convicted, his racing license could have been revoked, but with his license in hand and cash to burn, Allen turned to racehorses.

Mine That Bird originally sold in 2007 for a mere $9,500. Though he had good genes, he was undersize, crooked-legged, and more interested in mating than he was in racing. After gelding took care of that final problem, his career blossomed. The once unpromising horse won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top 2-year-old after his gelding caught Allen’s attention. Allen purchased him for $400,000.

Woolley, a former rodeo bareback rider who sports a mustache and a black hat, brought Mine That Bird to the Southwest, where the gelding performed poorly at Sunland Park. Undaunted, Woolley and Allen boldly entered him in the Kentucky Derby when a slot in the 20-horse field opened up. Woolley hitched the horse to the back of his four-wheel-drive and traveled 1,500 miles to Churchill Downs. Leaving the gate at 50-1 odds, Borel expertly guided Mine That Bird past 18 horses in a quarter of a mile to the second-biggest long-shot victory in the race’s 135-year history.

Meanwhile, the day before the Derby, a stunning bay named Rachel Alexandra had won the Kentucky Oaks, a prestigious race for fillies, by a record 20 lengths. Also ridden by Borel, who pronounced her the best horse in America, Rachel Alexandra seemed destined for the upcoming Preakness, except that her owners did not believe in racing fillies against colts. However, within days of her victory at the Oaks, Jess Jackson—the elderly founder of the Kendall-Jackson wine empire—bought her for between $4 million and $10 million and announced he would enter her in the Preakness.

Jackson, a 14th-generation American with an estimated net worth of $2.4 billion, claims a familial involvement with thoroughbreds dating back to his colonial roots, and he’s been on a one-man crusade to revitalize the ravaged horse-racing industry. Locking up Borel to ride Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, Jackson sent shockwaves through the Mine That Bird camp, which had set its sights on the second jewel of the Triple Crown with Borel as the jockey. It would be the first time an Oaks and Derby winner would face off in the Preakness.

Then things got dicey when Allen conspired to keep Rachel Alexandra out of the race by entering another horse, causing the Jackson camp to cry foul. Allen decided to consult with his incarcerated father, which led to a change of heart. In an exclusive report, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow revealed the senior Allen’s ironic advice to his son: “Just…do what’s right, because arrogance and greed…isn’t right.” Allen withdrew the other horse and Rachel Alexandra, ridden by Borel, beat Mine That Bird by less than a length, becoming the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness.

With the Belmont Stakes approaching—the final and most challenging of the Triple Crown races—a battle of the sexes between Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra seemed imminent. But on May 30, Jackson announced he would not enter his filly, claiming she “deserves a well-earned vacation.” He released Borel to ride Mine That Bird. With ownership of the so-called Super Filly, a stated commitment to “restore the sport’s vitality and grow its fan base,” and a forthright intention to breed a superhorse “of beauty and athleticism,” Jackson is now the undisputed king of the beleaguered industry.

Perhaps the Belmont contender most emblematic of the seediness of the industry is Luv Gov—the colt whose owner, Mary Lou Whitney, a friend of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, named him after Bruno’s rival, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. With numerous racetracks teetering toward bankruptcy, competition with casino and Internet gambling, the widespread abuse of racehorses, and the fatal breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles, the “sport of kings” is desperate for a makeover, and Jackson is on a mission to return the sport to its genteel and rarified past. “I think Mr. Jackson is all about the horse, not the races,” Borel said upon learning of Jackson’s decision to withdraw Rachel Alexandra from the Belmont. “It’s not money—it’s his horse.”

Borel may not think it’s about “money,” but Jackson’s ultimate ambition for Rachel Alexandra is to breed her to his two-time Horse of the Year, Curlin. Like so many of these horses, the stately Curlin winds back to a criminal conspiracy: Jackson and his partners acquired controlling interest of Curlin from a group of Kentucky attorneys accused of stealing $64 million from their clients.

Despite Borel’s claims that it’s not about the “money,” the breeding shed is the cash cow of the industry. Curlin is in his first year of stud duty—a career in which a stallion can expect to mate with as many as 150 mares per year for an estimated 20 years, or as long as his libido holds out. At $75,000 per coupling, the potential profits are staggering. In preparation for her arranged marriage with Curlin, Rachel Alexandra will appear in a photo spread in the August issue of Vogue. The magazine’s editor, Anna Wintour, assigned fashion photographer Steven Klein—known for his celebrity shots of Madonna, Britney Spears, and Angelina Jolie—to photograph the sleek star who has inspired women throughout the country, elevating the putdown, “she runs like a girl,” to the highest compliment. She should enjoy the limelight while it lasts, because she will soon be expected to produce a foal a year.

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As a gelding, Mine That Bird obviously has no breeding future. But his once obscure mother and her future babies are now worth millions. Meanwhile, he can spend the rest of his healthy years doing what he loves to do—run. Just as the legendary 1930s racehorse Seabiscuit symbolized the desperation spawned by the Great Depression, the short and scrappy Mine That Bird—with his cowboy trainer and underdog attitude—has come to symbolize the hope of a dispirited America. The 2009 racing season has been a kaleidoscopic view into the corruption, abuse, fantasy, thrill, and greed that has dominated recent decades in the thoroughbred world. Now, with unexpected champions and poignant back stories—proof that “a good horse can come from anywhere,” as Keeneland President Nick Nicholson put it—the sport may be moving back on track.

Sally Denton is a writer based in Santa Fe and author of six books, including The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America and the forthcoming The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press).