'Bird' plays role of underdog

Chip Woolley, played by actor Skeet Ulrich, has a heart-to-heart chat with racehorse Mine That Bird, aka thoroughbred Sunday Rest, in a scene from "50 to 1." Jim Wilson

Five years ago, I was stunned along with the rest of the racing world when 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird put in an unforgettable run to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby. However, unlike most of the racing world I was thrilled because I, for various reasons, had bet on the largely overlooked gelding.

Mine That Bird was a bit of a joke in racing's inner circle, especially before the race. Far from the bluegrass fields of Kentucky, he trailed into the hallowed grounds of Churchill Downs via New Mexico. He was far from physically impressive and his connections were far from the fancy kind. They didn't expect to win, they just wanted to run respectably.

The gelding's story didn't follow the script, and he made some very smart people look foolish. So, it is not all that common I find a fellow Bird lover.

Therefore, when I heard whispers Mine That Bird's story was going to be turned into a movie, I was excited but surprised. When I found out the driving force behind the flick was going to be Jim Wilson, I was impressed. Wilson is best known as the the Oscar-winning producer of "Dances with Wolves."


I did walk around town and show it to the guys who run the studios. They weren't wanting to make a horse story this past year. ... No matter what your story is, no matter how good your tale is, they are numbers guys.

"-- Jim Wilson, producer/director

Later this month, Wilson's labor of love, the appropriately titled movie "50 to 1," is set to make its premiere. Similar to that no one had much faith in Mine That Bird, Wilson was unable to convince a studio to pick up the movie, so he and four others have funded it.

"We feel like the release is mirroring him -- we are 50-1, too," Wilson said. "We are a small release, but if people hear about it and see the trailer and the poster and like our clips, I think they will come. I know the film plays. I feel good about that. It is just about getting people to go see it. You don't need to know about horse racing to enjoy the movie, and I am in trouble if horse racing people are the only people who come. Obviously, Bird is a huge part of it, but Bird isn't in every scene. It is much more of a romp. It is just damn fun."

The movie's world premier will be in Albuquerque, N.M., at the KiMo Theatre on March 19 before opening statewide March 21. Then the film will roll out across Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Wilson hopes, of course, that word-of-mouth success will propel the film to a nationwide release.

"We thought we would start in New Mexico, which makes complete sense because that is where the story emanates from," Wilson said. "It makes sense to take it home. Most films I have either produced and/or directed have been financed by a studio up front. If they pay for the film up front, they are going to release the movie. This didn't go that way.

"I did walk around town and show it to the guys who run the studios. They weren't wanting to make a horse story this past year. They looked at 'Luck,' which had been pulled from HBO, and 'Secretariat,' which didn't do the kind of numbers they had hoped. No matter what your story is, no matter how good your tale is, they are numbers guys. That is what they look at."

To help with publicity, the movie's connections have turned the roll-out release into a bus tour. The group will travel from New Mexico to Kentucky, making stops in cities and towns along the way, mirroring the trip Mine That Bird took on his way to the Run for the Roses in 2009.

Cast members joining the tour will be Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, Todd Lowe and Hugo Perez. Wilson and Faith Conroy, a co-producer and co-writer, will also take part. And when possible, the real Mine That Bird will make special appearances.

"When was the last time Hollywood's leading men hopped on a bus and toured the country from town to town, introducing their film to the people of America?" Wilson said. "It's unprecedented.

"The movie doesn't take itself too seriously because the people behind Mine That Bird don't. They are serious about training horses, but that is their life, that is their every day. I got to know them on a personal level. They wear their hearts on the sleeves, and they are not perfect and they show that. They like to have a good drink and they have a good time. So often I meet owners and connections and I don't get the connection I want. For me, they aren't as real and as interesting as these guys from New Mexico."

The film was shot at more than 30 locations in New Mexico and multiple locations in Kentucky and California, including Sunland Park, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita Park, racetracks where Mine That Bird actually raced. Jockey Calvin Borel plays himself in the movie, while trainer Chip Woolley and owners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach spent time with the actors so they could get to know the men they were portraying.

For the horsey set, rest assured that continuity shouldn't be a problem when it comes to the horse playing Mine That Bird. His stand-in, a horse named Sunday Rest, plays him in the vast majority of the film. There aren't 22 "Birds" that look nothing alike scattered throughout the film.

So, with the odds stacked so high against him, why did Wilson continue on with making this particular film? Well, a good story is a good story, and he has wanted to make a movie about horse racing for a while. After all, he fell in love with the sport at an early age while going to Santa Anita with his parents. Plus, while Mine That Bird's story didn't fit the expected script of the Kentucky Derby, it did rather read like something straight out of Hollywood.

"I had been waiting for a great racehorse story for a very long time," Wilson said. "But when I watched what unfolded at the 2009 Kentucky Derby, I was stunned. I've always been a fan of true underdog stories, and after meeting the owners, trainer and finally Bird himself, I was hooked. This story had all the cinematic elements you could ask for. It's been a real adventure and one I am proud to share with the world."

As Wilson points out, it is an underdog story, and everyone loves an underdog. I haven't seen "50 to 1" yet, but I will be cheering just as hard for it as I did for Mine That Bird that day in May five years ago. After all, you can't win if you never try, and even in this day and age, wealth and pedigree can and do lose out to heart and determination.

Love or hate him, Mine That Bird and his epic stretch run in the Kentucky Derby serve as reminders of that, and it is a lesson we would all do well to remember.