ROSWELL, NM- 60-year-old Mark Allen’s Double Eagle Ranch sits about five miles outside of Roswell. Here, Mine That Bird spends his days in a roomy paddock partially shaded by a canopy adorned with his own replica twin spires.
A decade after the 50-1 long shot surged from dead last place to overtake the leaders and romp to a nearly seven-length victory in horseracing’s most well-known competition, Mine That Bird remains a muscular, bay stunner. On the day I visited him, the New Mexico sun beat down and reflected brightly off the horse’s well-brushed coat.
For a Kentucky Derby winner to live on his owner’s ranch is more than a little unusual. Most Derby champs go off to stud farms and command large sums to pass along their athletic genes to subsequent thoroughbred generations. Mine That Bird, though, is a gelding. Breeding wasn’t a possibility, so his owners brought him home to Roswell.
"I think it's great. It kind of adds to the lore," horse racing scribe Joe Clancy said when I chatted with him in his office near Maryland's Fair Hill Training Center. "He came, shocked the world, won the Derby, did the other things he did and then went back to living the good life in New Mexico."
“It’s a lot of fun,” said co-owner Allen as he stood at the tailgate of a pickup truck parked beside the Bird’s paddock and adjusted his black cowboy hat. “He probably gets fifteen or twenty visitors a week. He’s changed our lives.”
The Bird’s other owner is retired equine veterinarian Dr. Leonard Blach. Blach, nearing his 84th birthday, might be the more sentimental of the two men. When Bird retired he never considered doing anything other than bringing the horse home.
“We’ve had some offers to send him back to Old Friends [Thoroughbred Retirement Farm] and stuff like that,” Blach said as he leaned back behind his desk in his Buena Suerte Equine Clinic office. “But, he’s part of Mark’s family. He’s part of my family, so we weren’t about to trade him off to anybody.”
The wealthy owners of thoroughbred racehorses rarely have a lot of involvement in the daily lives of their horses. That’s what stands out about Allen and Blach. The owners’ homes are mere yards from their famous horse’s paddock. They see the horse every day, feed him peppermints, dote on him and even have long talks with him. These guys love their horse.
“We give him a bath once a week or so,” Blach said. “He has visitors, so he’s always presentable. He’s a real fan, a real show. Of course he knows company, He knows when he’s got visitors and loves those peppermints.”
I lost count of how many of those peppermints I fed the blissful bronco from the palm of my hand. At one point, he became impatient with me, chomping down on my thumb when I failed to unwrap his treats quickly enough. “Hey now!” Allen said to Bird firmly as we all chuckled at the horse’s determination.
Bird’s retirement hasn’t been spent entirely in the paddock. Allen has occasionally thrown a Western saddle on his champion, put a snaffle bit in his mouth and taken him out for a trail ride.
“I took him out on the trail when we were doing an event at the Air Force Academy in Colorado,” Allen said with a broad smile. “I was opening and closing gates on him by the end of that ride. He was very professional.”
When the movie “50-1,” which chronicles the dramatic Mine That Bird story, came out in 2014, Allen trailered the horse to countless movie premiers. The easygoing horse grazed on grass patches near movie theaters and happily ate carrots, apples and peppermints offered by his fans. “He knows he’s a star,” said Allen.
Having seen a few snapshots of Bird in Western tack and a smiling Allen in the saddle, this reporter-turned-cowboy wondered if he might saddle up the famous Derby winner for a ride around the Double Eagle Ranch. No such luck.
“He’s totally retired now,” Blach told me with a tone of paternal protectiveness. “He’s got three paddocks that we rotate him in. He’s put on some weight. He looks good. We don’t ride him anymore.”
Still, before my visit to the Double Eagle Ranch was complete, Allen gave me a leg up and allowed me to sit bareback on the famous horse. Bird was nonplussed by this move and stood calmly as I settled my 6 foot 4 inch, 180-pound frame onto his broad back.
Sitting on a Kentucky Derby champion was the perfect way for a horse-obsessed journalist to conclude his New Mexico sojourn. I’d made the trip to feed an infatuation with racehorses that began when I covered Smarty Jones for a Philadelphia TV station. That horse compulsion continued with coverage of Philadelphia colts Afleet Alex, Barbaro and Hard Spun. By the time I left Philly, I’d become far more star-struck by standout horses than by human athletes and had even adopted a grandson of Secretariat. Sitting on the brawny Bird while patting his withers was bucket list stuff for this reporter.
In the movie about Mine That Bird, the horse’s connections are depicted as rough-edged ranchers. If you visit Mine That Bird in Roswell, though, you’ll meet two gracious gentlemen and an undersized racehorse with an outsized heart, all of whom are willing to share their story with you.
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