Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.
BALTIMORE – It was maybe an hour or so after Preakness heroine Rachel Alexandra departed Pimlico Sunday morning and on her side of the stakes barn, now virtually empty, Chip Woolley was balanced on his crutches, watching closely as Mine That Bird’s groom jogged the little gelding down the shedrow.
“What a neat little horse,” said the trainer as the Preakness runner-up bounced towards him, head up, ears pricked, as eager as if he were about to get a mint or a carrot.
“He doesn’t look like he ran hard at all,” I said.
“That’s because he don’t waste anything,” said Woolley. “Not around the barn, not when he trains, not in the post parade …. he saves it all for the race. And then, he only runs for a half-mile. He’s held up well.”
“How about you? How are you holding up?”
“In the morning when I get up, I feel fine, but by the end of the day, I get tired,” he admitted, propping his crutches against the wall and settling into a canvas director’s chair. “It’s been an enjoyable experience that would have been more enjoyable if I didn’t have a broken leg. But it’s been great.”
True enough. A week ago, Woolley came to Baltimore with a Kentucky Derby winner that everyone said was a complete fluke, nothing more. He leaves Monday with a racehorse that everyone now realizes is the Real Deal.
“That’s the most satisfying thing,” he said. “No one can question his ability. In the Derby, he ran past 18 of the best horses around in a quarter-mile. He did the same thing Saturday – made a huge move and ran hard, just didn’t get there.”
By now, Mine That Bird was outside, dragging his groom around in the drizzle as he munched away on the grass. There was no sign of the horde of people which had thronged the pavement by the stakes barn in the official Post-Preakness Party (a far more lively crowd than the alcohol-free group in the infield); in fact, the only other trainer around was Larry Jones, wrapping things up as he prepared to ship back to Delaware Park with 10th-place finisher Friesan Fire.
“He moved way up off the Derby,” Jones said to Woolley with a wicked grin. “He got a 43 Beyer in the Derby; hell, yesterday he must have gone all the way to a 60, maybe even a 61.”
Woolley has been kind of quiet around the barn, feeling, as he put it, a bit like “an outsider” in amongst the Bob Bafferts and D. Wayne Lukases and Todd Pletchers, but Sunday morning with Jones he was as relaxed as could be. He doesn’t smile much, but with his sunglasses off, you can see the laugh lines around his eyes and you kind of get the idea he’s going to have a great time in New York with this horse.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great, historic place to run a great, historic race. The big, sweeping turns, the wide track – it should suit my horse well. Actually, running a mile and a half on a straightaway would suit him best.”
I can’t wait.