It’s interesting how many national horse events lead right back to the Santa Ynez Valley — the recent major thoroughbred horse races the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness are good examples.

 

Jess Jackson is the owner of the local Kendall-Jackson vineyard and a number of other vineyards and wineries in both California and Europe. He was recently in the news spotlight when he bought the thoroughbred racehorse Rachel Alexandra. This 3 year-old bay filly is a streak of lightning on the racetrack and recently overcame a group of exceptional fillies at the Kentucky Oaks race and won by 20 1/4 lengths.

Why wasn’t she entered in the Kentucky Derby? Because her owners, Dolphus Morrison and Michael Lauffer, doubted she could compete against a field of top male thoroughbreds.

Enter Jess Jackson and his partner Harold T. McCormick. They stepped up with a rumored $8 million to $10 million to buy Rachel Alexandra. They took her lead shank and led her off to new adventures.

Jackson has a group of thoroughbred farms near Lexington, Ky., called Stonestreet Farms (which is his middle name). The horse is now under the excellent training of Steve Asmussen, who brought Jackson’s stallion Curlin to national prominence. But more about this later.

In the meantime, another scenario began: A horse trainer in New Mexico named Chip Woollery loaded a horse named Mine That Bird into a horse trailer behind his pick-up truck and set out for Kentucky. It was not an easy trip, as he had broken some bones in his foot and was on crutches. But the horse had actually qualified for the Kentucky Derby and this opportunity was not to be missed.

The horse’s owners, Mark Allen and veterinarian Dr. Ken Blach, had been watching Mine That Bird ever since he was sold as a yearling at a Fasig-Tipton sale in Kentucky for $9,500. As he matured, his speed had increased considerably, and they ended up buying him for $400,000. He was not a large horse, only 15.1 hands tall (but neither was Seabiscuit).

Allen and Blach had had a nice piece of luck in securing an excellent jockey named Calvin Borel. However, no one had ever heard of Mine That Bird before, and at Derby race time, his odds were 50-1.

As the horses broke from the starting gate, Bird was at the back of the pack and hung there for some time. Then something strange started to happen. He began snaking up along the rail, passing horse after horse until he was actually out in front of a field of 18 other top thoroughbred race horses by five or six lengths. The horse nobody had ever heard of won the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

His jockey, Calvin Borel is such fun to watch when he has a big win. He talks to his parents up in heaven. He thanks God, and just exudes joy and gratitude. He’s an endearing character. Now Mine That Bird was in position to try for the second jewel in the Triple Crown, which was the up-coming Preakness.

“We couldn’t really see Mine That Bird as he was moving up on the rail,” said Dr. Doug Herthel, who was there at the Derby. “It was not until he passed Pioneer of the Nile, who was in the lead, that we realized what was happening. It was an absolutely historic race and the best partnership of horse and rider ever.”

In the meantime, Jess Jackson decided that he just had to see if Rachel Alexandra could outrun the boys at the upcoming Preakness at Pimlico Race Course. Pimlico had been scheduled to close. But it’s a valuable part of Maryland’s history and had been saved by a special act of legislation.

This race had always been dominated by 3-year-old colts. In fact, a filly had not won at Pimlico for 85 years. And it had been 103 years since a filly had won as the favorite. Jackson was unfazed. Calvin Borel had ridden her in her spectacular win of more than 20 lengths at the Kentucky Oaks race. Borel told the press that she was the best horse he had ever ridden.

Now Dr. Blach and Mark Allen were without their Derby winning jockey. Luckily, they were able to secure the very talented jockey Mike Smith, who carefully studied the gelding’s idiosyncrasies and was ready for the challenge.

On race day, Rachel Alexandra was the 2-1 favorite. But she drew the 13th position in the starting gate. “Ooooooh,” people said, “That’s a bad omen. Horses don’t win the Preakness from the 13th hole.”

But off they went, and she took a favorable place near the front. Once again, Mine That Bird hung back.

Then he started to make his move up the inside on the rail, but the other jocks were watching for him. He had a hard time getting through. In fact, Smith said that D. Wayne Lukas’s horse, Flying Pirate, bumped him twice.

But Bird was not finished, he went around the outside, and at the finish line he had almost caught the filly. That little detour probably cost him the race. But it settled the question of whether Mine That Bird’s win at the Kentucky Derby had been just a fluke.

This is quite a horse.

Borel, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice in the last three years, said Rachel Alexandra had run very hard and was tired at the end.

“I was concerned that she was overheated,” he said, and he could be seen pouring bottled water over her head as he rode her to the victory circle.

“I wish it had been a dead heat,” Russell Drake told me. “They are both such remarkable horses.” Russell is the manager of River Edge Farm in Buellton, and he spends a lot of time in Kentucky. He has 50 or 60 horses at Lane’s End Farm, and its stallion, After Market, stands at stud there.

The trainer is Steve Asmussen, who brought Jess Jackson’s horse, Curlin, into national prominence when he won the Preakness and was also named Horse of the Year in 2007.

“He has probably won more money than any other horse in North America because the purses have kept rising,” Russell said. “It’s well over $10 million. He stands at Lane’s End, and his stud fee is $75,000.”

Jackson reportedly bought Rachel Alexandra with the hope of breeding a “super horse” with Curlin as the sire. So the excitement will go on and on. But the next challenge is on June 6, at the Belmont, in Elmont, NY. It has a track with different conditions: It will be a longer race at a mile and a half, with wide sweeping turns.

If Jackson enters Rachel Alexandra to run against Mine That Bird, the entire sporting world will be on hand to watch the Belmont.