NEW YORK - In the days leading to the Kentucky Derby, just about everybody ignored the little gelding tucked away in his stall at Churchill Downs.
Mine That Bird, a latecomer to the Derby field, had recently arrived in Louisville after a 19-hour trailer ride from New Mexico, his trainer Chip Woolley doing the driving despite a broken right leg fused with a metal plate and 12 screws.
This was not big news, though, not with top 3-year-olds such as I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, Friesan Fire and Dunkirk receiving all the attention.
A lot has changed in five weeks: Mine That Bird won the Derby by an astonishing 63/4 lengths at 50-1 odds, came up a length short of the filly Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness and now is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
From longshot to people's choice, Mine That Bird has become one of racing's most popular racehorses, topped only by the sensational filly who won't be running the final leg of the Triple Crown.
When Woolley led Mine That Bird off a van and toward his barn at Belmont Park the other day, there were about 50 media members there to record every step.
"This is a lot different than when we arrived at Churchill Downs," Woolley said. "Nobody even came to see me for the first week."
Two days before Mine That Bird tries to win the 11/2-mile Belmont and make Calvin Borel the first jockey to win the Triple Crown on different horses, Woolley was asked if he ever thought he'd be in the national spotlight after 25 years of training horses.
"It absolutely never crossed my mind," he said Thursday. "It was a major surprise."
Starting with the Derby.
Mine That Bird came into the race 0-for-2 at Sunland Park in New Mexico after earning the 2-year-old championship in Canada, then finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
A son of 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, Mine That Bird was dismissed as the 17th choice in the 19-horse Derby field. Even Tom Durkin, who called the race on national television, was late in spotting him along the rail.
"The only person more surprised than me winning the Derby seemed to be you," Woolley told Durkin at Wednesday's post-position draw. Durkin took the ribbing in stride, replying, "There are many times I wish I'd seen that race."
Racing fans were still not convinced after the Derby. And when Rachel Alexandra, winner of the Kentucky Oaks by 201/4 lengths the day before the Derby, was purchased by Jess Jackson and entered in the Preakness, the filly and Borel took the star turns. The filly won the Preakness by a diminishing length over 6-1 third choice Mine That Bird, but the gelding proved his Derby win was no fluke.
A field of 10 is set for the Belmont, with Flying Private the only other horse to compete in the Derby and Preakness. The other Derby runners in the field are Chocolate Candy, Summer Bird, Dunkirk and Mr. Hot Stuff. The other Preakness runner is Luv Gov.
Charitable Man, the 3-1 second choice, and a pair of longshots trained by Nick Zito - Brave Victory and Miner's Escape - fill out the field.
Mike Watchmaker, the national handicapper for Daily Racing Form, had a simple explanation why Mine That Bird has become so popular.
"He won the Derby, ran huge in the Preakness and the Preakness winner is not here," he said.
Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Charitable Man, was initially a skeptic just like everybody else.
"He happened to be in the same barn I was in at Churchill," McLaughlin said. "And to be honest, with Charitable Man and Mine That Bird, you're looking at a magnificent animal as opposed to a small gelding that cost $9,500 as a yearling. But he's a runner and he's a gutsy little horse who tries hard and might have won the Preakness with a little cleaner trip."