In the race to explain Mine That Bird's Derby zeitgeist, no one has offered the Roswell alien connection...yet. If that horse runs that way again in the Preakness, we might want to go back and look some more at the history of the town that sent him to the Derby and what happened there on July 7, 1947.
Mine That Bird's dazzling victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby has been explained away by the longest list of reasons that any great moment in sports has ever enjoyed. Or suffered, depending on your point of view.
The most popular, of course: a brilliant, hair-raising, let's-see-that-again ride by jockey Calvin Borel. Agreed!
A regular reader of this blog (or so he tells me, to my delight), Dr. Sid Gustafson, offers some equine sports science reasons this week in the blog of The New York Times, The Rail: the change in altitude meant that Mine That Bird was running with New Mexico oxygen capacity at a Louisville elevation. Gustafson also saw some ethereal quality in Mine That Bird's hooves that he described as "mudders". Oh, and the colt has big nostrils. The better to breathe that oxygen-depleted high desert air, I guess.
Others point to his sire, or his career on artificial surfaces creating a zeitgeist effect when he switched to good old (if muddy) Churchill Downs dirt. And there there was that two-mile gallop before the Derby (see elevation switch, above). And the trailer ride, all that way from New Mexico, that must have had something to do with it. And the reasons go on.
No one has mentioned that he hails from Roswell, New Mexico, as does his new jockey, Mike Smith. And we all know what made that place famous on July 7, 1947. I'm surprised that no one has suggested an alien connection aided the horse in his zip along the rail on the first Saturday in May--Yet, that is!
I wasn't particularly looking for a reason, I was just enjoying the moment, until the other day that I found out that this little horse's past includes plenty of time spent with a familiar face around the Hoofcare and Lameness scene.
It seems that Needham/Betz Thoroughbreds in Kentucky, where Mine That Bird was born and raised, employs a very special farrier to take care of their young stock. I don't know how much you know about how foals are cared for on Kentucky Thoroughbred farms, but it is not unusual for a farrier and his or her crew to go through dozens of foals and yearlings in a day.
Except for one. There's one truck that stays in the driveway longer than the others, and one farrier who may only get through a few of the foals on the list on any given day. And when you ask him, three years later, about a particular foal, he'll not only remember the foal's dam, he'll remember the feet. And he'll be happy to tell you about them. In detail.
That farrier would be Victor Camp, of course. A transplanted New Yorker who looks like he'd be more at home in Greenwich Village than rural Kentucky, Victor has chosen the Lexington area for his mid-career farrier practice base and recently bought a home in Winchester, Kentucky. His practice is split between Thoroughbred farms and sport horses and his caveat with all his clients is that he be allowed time to work on each horse, consider what its most appropriate care should be, and take the time to do it properly.
Victor learned about horses and horseshoeing in a different world, in and out of the rarefied estates of Westchester County, New York where he apprenticed to older smiths in the 1970s when the fine horses he worked on required a level of craftsmanship that could be recognized but was rarely taught. He developed an analytical hoof theorist's angst that has made him the Woody Allen character of the farrier world today--all in a world where the answers to many of his questions are prefaced with, "Well, no one ever asked me that before." And also in a world where many don't ask questions at all.
When I tracked Victor down to ask him about Mine That Bird, he had no idea that anyone outside Lexington knew of his involvement with the gelding, but he was quick to launch into a recollection of what it was like to work at Needham/Betz two years ago when Mine That Bird was being prepared for the yearling sales. Victor continues to provide services at the farm.
"He was small," Victor recalled, "and I was concerned about him." Mine That Bird is not Victor's first Derby winner; Victor also prepped the feet of Monarchos, another somewhat surprise winner of the Derby, for his career ahead.
Victor advised, "I like to say that every foot I handle is handled like that colt is the next Derby winner. Every care must be taken to ensure it has the best foot possible underneath it!"
Victor had high praise for farm owner and breeder Judy Needham, whom he said was a "hands-on" owner who would often be in the barn and even hold the foals and yearlings for him, and discuss their development and sales plans as he worked. He particularly praised Needham for not pushing him to over-correct Mine That Bird's toe-out conformation, on the right front. "She said to give him time, and that's what that horse needed," Victor recalled. "That's the sign of a good owner, one who is willing to give a young horse a chance to come around rather than pressure the farrier to crank on these babies to look better by a sale date. I surely did not want to force him."
By now, everyone knows that Mine That Bird did not break $10,000 at the yearling sale.
Victor admitted that he was mowing his lawn when the Derby was on, and forgot all about watching it.
Victor remarked that Mine That Bird was a late foal, and that he could still be developing, particularly in his chest, a point on which co-owner Dr. Leonard Blach concurred in an interview with Hoofcare and Lameness earlier this week. Victor said that there are many reasons why a horse toes out--whether from a rotational deviation, an angular (joint angulation) deviation, or a combination of the two, in the pastern, fetlock and/or knee joints.
"By the time the horse is three, his pectorals should be filling in," Victor said, "and lots of these toed-out horses have figured out very well how to compensate. Then the muscles fill in. He might be ok. I'd like to see him."
Might be ok? Someone should show Victor the replay of this race.
The record books are full of horses who ran for years in spite of their imperfections--Sir Barton, Swaps, Assault and Buckpasser are four of the all-time great champion racehorses profiled in this blog recently--horses who ran on their hearts instead of their hooves.
Perhaps sometimes the blemished ones ultimately outrun their stablemates, the ones who had all the splints and braces and surgery and special shoes to make their toes point straight ahead on the day it counted.
For so many colts, the most important day of their lives, the day that counts, is the day of that yearling sale. But Mine That Bird was looking at a different calendar. For him, it was all about May 2, 2009.
Too bad Victor had to mow his lawn.
Photo: © Hoofcare and Lameness archive; Victor Camp lectured on onion-heel shoes at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's farrier conference a few years ago.
© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. No use without permission. You only need to ask. Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site, www.hoofcare.com, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.