Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner and the inspiration for the upcoming movie 50 to 1 isn’t out to stud. He’s a gelding, so that’s not really a possibility. Maybe that’s why he was in such a bad mood, thrashing around in his trailer, well — barn.
Or maybe the star is just temperamental. Bird was in residence at the Kentucky Derby Museum next to Churchill Downs, greeting tourists and any equine paparazzo who passed through. And it was opportune timing. This weekend, post-production work is expected to wrap on 50 to 1, which will tell the story of how an under-appreciated thoroughbred owned by a group of New Mexico cowboys came to win the Kentucky Derby with, yes, 50-to-1 odds.At the 2009 Derby, Pioneer of the Nile and Dunkirk were favored to win at 4-1. But Mine That Bird broke from far behind to sneak along the rail and win the race, surprising almost everyone watching, including the announcers.
“A spectacular upset,” the announcer Tom Durkin said. “Mine That Bird wins the Kentucky Derby! An impossible result here!”
“It never entered our mind that we could really win that thing,” said Dr. Leonard Blach, one of Mine That Bird’s owners.
Blach and his partners almost didn’t enter the horse into the Derby. And when they did, they themselves drove him to Louisville in a trailer.
“We were just hoping that we could make a decent showing, you know, and run up in the pack someplace,” he said. “We didn’t realize what a story or what a movie could’ve been made out of that.”
But someone did realize it. Jim Wilson is the writer and director of 50 to 1. Wilson is actually the second filmmaker to try to turn the story into a movie. That’s fast, considering Mine That Bird won the Derby only four years ago. It took decades for Secretariat or Seabiscuit to make it to the multiplex.
But the studios thought it was too soon, especially coming just three years after Disney’s Secretariat.
“In truth, no one was that keen to make another horse racing movie,” Wilson said. “I took it to market a year ago, and no one was that keen on it, so I said, ‘Well, we’ll put it together ourselves.’”
Wilson had to make the movie without a distributor. He’s hoping the underdog story will catch the studios’—and the public’s—attention, and see a wide release once he finishes the final cut. Wilson is taking a big risk. It’s not easy to make a movie independently. Especially if that movie is centered on horse racing.
“Oh my god, the challenges. They’re never ending,” Wilson said. “You just take the horse aspect of it. You’re doing everything they do in a real live race. You’re loading the gates, you’re going down the backstretch at full speed. You’re having to film all that, not just watch it. That’s difficult as all get-out.”
Churchill Downs Vice President John Asher said the Secretariat movie crew also had plenty of frustrations with race scenes, especially when it came to recreating the 1973 Derby, when Secretariat toppled second-place finisher Sham.
“In a lot of those races, the Secretariat they had wasn’t that interested in beating Sham that day,” Asher said. “The jocks really had to pull on them to get the desired finish. They weren’t exactly riding them out to the wire.”
And there are other challenges as well. Some of Churchill Downs features have changed since 1973. So have fashions.
“My lingering memory of that Secretariat shoot being here was the overwhelming, suffocating amount of polyester that was on display. All those leisure suits,” Asher recalled.
There are few leisure suits to be seen a Churchill Downs these days, but John Asher said there’s one thing horse racing fans can always count on.
“When you open the gate, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but when those [unexpected moments] happen, people really tend to embrace these horses,” he said. “And winning the Kentucky Derby’s just special.”
Wilson will start shopping his movie to studios soon. And even though Mine That Bird may not be a household name like Seabiscuit or Secretariat, he’s done pretty well for an underdog before.