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Kentucky Derby horse owner thanks God

Mine That Bird co-owner Mark Allen talks about his horse winning the Kentucky Derby in 2009. (J.T. Keith Photo)

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Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby in 2009. Here is the trophy on display in Mark Allen’s trophy room. (J.T. Keith Photo)

During the movie, 50-to-1, there is a scene in which Mark Allen is getting plummeted by a lot of men in the bar called Annie Get Your Guns in Raton in 1998. He’s holding his own, but he needs some help and help fast. Enter a stranger, Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr.

Prior to “Chip” entering the fray — both men had been giving each other unspoken fighting looks as they were in horse barns. No words were ever spoken, but most people know that if someone says the wrong thing — or brushes against the person the wrong way, it’s on.

“When I first seen ‘Chip,’” Allen said, “I was in a barn across from where ‘Chip’ was galloping for. We kept giving each other the mean eye and I figured we’d end up fighting each other. I was in this bar and I had bitten off more than I could chew. He threw in and helped me. I believe it was more than four or five — it was a bunch of them.”

What started out as an antagonistic look turned into a helping hand and a lifetime of friendship, when “Chip” helped Allen clear the bar and get out of there with some scrapes and bruises. Upon meeting Allen for the first time and shaking hands with him, one notices the firmness of his grip.

Another thing that is noticeable about Allen, 60, is his size and his calm demeanor. Allen laughs when remembering the fight scene and acknowledges he fought more men than the movie showed. Allen also said in the old days, he used to like to have a good time and sometimes his having a good time got him in trouble.

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Allen has mellowed with faith in God, a new marriage, and the gratefulness of Mine That Bird, and the other effects of time and old age. Make no mistake about it, if need be, he can still ask no quarter or give no quarter and if need be, clear a bar.

His life has taken him in a different direction, he feels like the Almighty has had a supreme hand in his life. Allen comes across as a kind, loyal friend to those he loves and cares about. Allen has given jobs to people and helped some down on their luck as evidence when “Doc” wanted him to fire “Chip.”

After finishing badly in the Breeders Cup, “Doc” made reference to what Allen saw in “Chip” and reminded Allen that they paid a lot for the horse and it wasn’t about friendship, and that losing was expensive, too.

“I guess out of friendship and loyalty,” Allen said, “I know ‘Chip’ is an excellent horseman. He broke his leg and there was no way when a guy gets down like that, that you can kick him out the door.”

Allen got into the horse business with his cousins, the Ledfords, in Farmington. Allen would clean stalls at age 12. His mother, Doris, married a horse trainer named Wendell Merrill. Merrill got Allen into horses and he also rode bareback and bulls. Allen was a groomer for a while and then a pony boy at Santa Fe.

“Doc” and Allen knew each other in Raton but their friendship didn’t deepen until Allen moved across the street from “Doc.” Allen owned one of the greatest sires of all time in Easy Jet, and they got to know each other through breeding.

“Doc” don’t seem older to me,” Allen said. “I think of him as just my friend, it’s like we’re the same age. I don’t know, it just works — he’ll jump on my butt when I need it.”

Allen was called three times by the president of the Kentucky Derby. Twice, Allen hung up the phone thinking one of his friends was playing a joke on him. The third time the president called, he said, “Look, I’m not calling you again. Your horse is eligible to enter the Kentucky Derby.”

Allen had to talk “Doc” into going to the Derby. Allen told him, “How many times are we going to have a chance to run in the Derby? Let’s just go there and have some fun.”

“Going to the Derby,” Allen said, “was the best time of my life. I enjoyed it a little too much. I wasn’t going up there to win the Derby, I was going up there to have fun. How many times do you get to run in the Derby?”

Allen has had success with other horses in his stable. On the day of the Belmont, Mine That Bird finished in third place. He had horses run first and second in the Rainbow Derby for quarter horses.

When “Chip” first looked at Mine That Bird, he didn’t like the horse. He was little and crooked in both front legs with toes out. Allen told him, you’re up there, go ahead and watch him work and let me know what you think. “Chip” called back and said, “Oh yeah, this is a runner.”

Allen thought he was asking too much of Mine That Bird when they ran him in the Breeders Cup and he finished in the back of the pack. Allen felt disappointed in the horse when he ran second and fourth place at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino.

Bird was the 2-year-old of the year in Canada, and Allen thought Bird could run fourth or fifth place in the Derby, and thought they would skip the Preakness and run hard in the Belmont. When Allen and “Doc” found out that Calvin Borel didn’t have a ride for the Derby and they could get him, all of the options were off the table.

During the week leading up to the race, when the horses practice, they wear a yellow blanket on the horse called a saddle blanket. The track sounds a horn to distinguish them. When that happens, other horses and people on the track have to move out of the horse’s way.

When Allen saw how much bigger the other horses were compared to Mine That Bird, he felt like he had messed up. Bird wasn’t 3 years old yet and he wasn’t that big compared to other horses. Pioneerof The Nile was big. I Want Revenge was the favorite of the Derby in 2009.

“When I watched Bird gallop around that track,” Allen said, “he was eating that track up. He loved that surface and the more he galloped, the more confident I got. He was just floating over the track. I’d see other horses and say that horse looks sore and they’d scratch the horse the next day.”

“Chip” and Borel both made the decision to run in the back of the pack at the Derby.

When they came by at the start of the race and they were in last place, Allen felt like he went from the lowest of lows.

“There was a decision,” Allen said. “To run in the back of the pack, but not that far back. Calvin’s Calvin and when he’s riding your horse, you always have a chance to win.”

At the half pole, Allen could see Bird starting to pick horses up and knew they wouldn’t run dead last and that made him happy. At the 3/8 pole, he saw Bird flying and felt like they were going to be in the thick of things.

“When Bird moved to the 1/4 pole,” Allen said, “I thought we’d be right there. When we moved to the 1/8 pole, I knew it was over. At the 1/8 pole, I started looking for the winner’s circle trying to figure out how to get to that thing. Bird was the best horse that day. Nobody was going to outrun him that day.”

Allen feels validated by Bird’s second-place showing in the Preakness and third-place showing in the Belmont — it cements the fact that Bird was not a freak and feels like if Borel or Mike Smith would have ridden Bird all three races, they could have been Triple Crown winners.

“I’m really happy with first, second and third,” Allen said.

Allen feels like winning the Derby is the best thing he has ever done, and to do it with “Doc” it means even more, because they are still close. He also got to share it with his kids, mom, dad and his cousin Kelly Dennington.

“We get 20 people by here a week to see the Bird,” Allen said. “It’s part of history and it’s nice to be the winner of the Kentucky Derby. I never get tired of people talking about the bird or coming by. It’s very cool. Everybody is welcome here.”

The one thing that Allen remembers best are the fans in Kentucky. When they would go out, people knew who they were and would call out, “Mine That Bird.” A lot of people made a big deal out of them driving the horse to Kentucky, but they never considered flying Bird. When they traveled in New Mexico and around on the fair circuit, they would just drive the horse to the race.

Since winning the Derby, Allen doesn’t party like he used to. Allen has horses running Sunday in the first and third races. His horses names are: D E Love Me Dew and The Shootist will run in Sun Ray Park in Farmington.

The next goal for Allen is to win the All-American Futurity, which is the top American quarter-horse race. “Doc” and him would be the only owners to ever win both the Kentucky Derby and that race in a career. Allen has other horses that he hopes will be good.

Allen feels like to win the Derby, that horses have to be healthy, be sound and easy when the horse runs and be experienced and have talent. Allen describes the keys to a good horse is to have the breeding, mind, the physical ability and Bird had all of those qualities.

Allen has been back to the Derby, and this Saturday, they will take Bird to Sunland Park and lead the post parade in one of the races. Bird will go into the Ruidoso Downs Racehorse Hall of Fame in July.

“This all happened,” Allen said, “because of the Heavenly Father. Bird is and always will be my favorite horse. Bird is an everyday man’s horse, he’s New Mexico’s horse. I thank all honor and praise to the Heavenly Father. I know God gave us Mine That Bird, and put us all together.”

See page B3 for a photo of Mine That Bird’s winning trophy.


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