Saturday, May 16, 2009

What Do Kentucky Derby Winner Mine That Bird and Actor Walter Matthau Have in Common? A Grumpy Old Man Would Be Gambling Today

by Fran Jurga | 16 May 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog

They have Leonard Blach in common. The New Mexico veterinarian plays the role of owner in the real life of Mine That Bird; he acted in the role of the veterinarian in the film Casey's Shadow with Matthau. The rest of the time, he actually is a veterinarian.

When you look him up, he checks out. He's a Colorado State graduate, from a ranching family, owns a New Mexico clinic.

But the softspoken co-owner of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is actually a veterinarian and race horse owner with Hollywood ties and a movie set past that make the Mine That Bird's story one level more surreal and storybook than they may already appear. This veterinarian has his union card and is ready for his close-up.

And he is fully versed in the world of storybook endings, so bring on the Preakness.

Before I interviewed Dr. Blach, I thought I should do my homework, so I sat down to watch the 1978 horse-racing family classic, Casey's Shadow. And as I watched, I wondered about the fairy tale story that was unfolding before me.

If you can believe this: Walter Matthau plays a washed up Cajun running horse trainer and grumpy (of course) single dad who ruins every chance he has to prove to his sons how much he loves them. For some reason, they stick together. Salvation comes along in the form of a lightning-fast colt, so the family heads to Ruidoso, New Mexico to run against the best in the country for the big bucks and maybe a pickup truck that starts.

Except the colt is iffy in the soundness department. And there's drama. Drama that reaches its zenith late one night when the vet's truck pulls up to the barn and Leonard Blach--yes! Mine That Bird's Dr. Leonard Blach!--gets out and feels the heat in the colt's foreleg.

Blach's warning to Matthau not to risk the colt's life in the American International falls on deaf ears. Matthau has waited all his life for a colt that fast. And he's doing it for his kids. They need the money. It's a gamble. Get out the ice. He's gonna run.

It's interesting to note that this movie must have been written right after the Ruffian tragedy and I wonder how much that influenced the storyline. You know what's going to happen, and yet this is a family movie so there's a twist at the end, even if there isn't a new pickup.

The original title of the movie was Coon-Ass Colt, and there's even a song in the movie by that name, by Dr. John. The soundtrack has some great music. The film was made by Norman Ritt, famed more for social-issues films like Norma Rae.

The Cajun parts of the movie reminded me of the Calvin Borel interview on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno the other night; Leno showed a photo of Borel's childhood home and asked if they had electricity. That may be a good parallel for how much many people in mainstream racing understand about what goes on outside the spotlight of national-broadcast racing.

Blach was happy to reminisce with me about the fun days of filming Casey's Shadow, when Hollywood came to Ruidoso and Santa Fe. Apparently, there's work for veterinarians on movie sets, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. We were both surprised that the press hasn't drawn more parallels between the film and the real life story that unfolded right before us on May 2, 2009.

Horse racing is Dr. Blach's world, and racing in New Mexico is unique. The purses seem huge for a sprint, the atmosphere seems casual and the technology amassed to reproduce and refine the Quarter horse running machine in utero would amaze anyone who has been parked in the Thoroughbred world's breeding sheds for a while.

Case in point: Consider the recent application of technology to extend Storm Cat's career by retiring him from Thoroughbreds to reinventing him for artificial breeding for Quarter horses; a droplet of Storm Cat's sperm can be bioengineered or "extended" to insure his fertility in the Quarter horse world for a long time to come.

And if you live in that world where talk is not so much of foals but of embryos, you would know the name of Dr. Leonard Blach and his Buena Suerte Clinic. The equine hospital in Roswell has stood some of the leading money-winners in Quarter horse racing, including the greats Go Man Go and Easy Jet.

Dr. Blach thought that if there was something that could come of his group's colorful trek to Louisville and Mine That Bird's inspired romp under Calvin Borel's guidance, it would be to introduce America to The Other Racing. There is another way to race horses. There is another way to breed and raise horses. There is another way to dress and talk and look at the world.

If you rent Casey's Shadow, it looks dated and hokey but there is still something authentic about it, no matter how bad Matthau's attempt at a Cajun accent. It's a good horse racing movie, filmed on location. They didn't try to make Santa Anita look like Ruidoso Downs: they went there, instead, and actors and cameramen alike ate the dust of those horses.

Right now, Dr. Blach and his group from New Mexico have our attention and have put New Mexico on the racing map for many people. But guess what? It was there all along. And thriving.

This afternoon, Americans will gather in front of television sets to watch the Preakness. My guess is more than a few will be wearing cowboy hats in support of the boys from New Mexico and their little horse.

I'll be hoping for another Hollywood ending.

This post originally appeared in a slightly different version on Thanks to repro specialist Gregg Veneklasen DVM of Timber Creek Veterinary Hospital in Canyon, Texas for linking Dr. Blach to the film.

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