It finally occurred to me exactly what about Mine That Bird and his Kentucky Derby win appealed to me—it’s very reminiscent of a similar Derby effort by another then-unheralded gelding, Exterminator in 1918.
Physically, they are opposites, as the chestnut Exterminator was tall and lanky, but both were cheap yearling purchases later sold for decent sums (Exterminator for $12,000; Mine That Bird, $400,000). As a two-year-old, Exterminator won his maiden effort in Kentucky, but his next three races were in Canada, where he won one and finished fourth in the other two. He was hardly recognized as among the best of his generation—yet.
At three, he was bought to be a workhorse for the juvenile champion Sun Briar who, unfortunately, was injured shortly before the Derby. His owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer reluctantly entered him, and at 30-1 in an eight-horse field, Exterminator raced at the back of the pack over a muddy Churchill Downs track, slipping through on the inner rail as they turned for home, to win by a length over second-place Escoba and third-place finisher, the filly Viva America (who also won the Kentucky Oaks that year). It was his first race as a three-year-old, and only fifth lifetime start.
Exterminator went on to race 99 times, winning 50, with 17 seconds and 17 thirds—that’s 85% in the money! He won the Saratoga Cup four years in a row, the Brooklyn Handicap at age 7 (carrying 135 lbs), and twice won the 2-mile Autumn Gold Cup. At age 9, “Old Bones” retired after a public exhibition at Hawthorne, and his death at age 30 in 1945 was noted in a half-page obituary in his hometown Binghamton, NY newspaper.
Ironically, Exterminator was a son of McGee, who also sired Donerail, winner of the 1913 Kentucky Derby—at 91-1, paying $184.90.
I realize that aspects of the “Sport of Kings” have fundamentally changed over the past 100 years or so, and I'm not saying Mine That Bird is the second-coming of Exterminator, but is it really that inexplicable that a horse like Mine That Bird can win the Derby? I think not. It’s happened before and it will happen again, handicappers be damned. Why diminish a very impressive effort, won in an honest time (2:02.66) for a muddy track, by a previous Derby-winning jockey who made the perfect rail-skimming move? Does it mean this is the worst three-year-old crop ever? Hardly (how quickly we forget last year). Let’s just enjoy what happened, regardless of what’s next. Will he be a Triple Crown winner? Doubtful, but, who cares?
By the way, Mine That Bird isn’t the only gelding this year to crash what breeders believe to be their exclusive parties. In Australia, the big two-year-old races are viewed as showcases for potential stallions, thus they garner huge purses. Imagine their frustration when not only did the 100-1 gelding Phelan Ready win the A$2 million Magic Millions Classic in January, but also come back in April—at 24-1—to win the A$3.5 million G1 AAMI Golden Slipper Stakes.
Another gelding with a great story currently in the news is nine-year-old Aussie sensation Takeover Target who on Saturday got a rousing standing ovation after his definitive win in the G1 Goodwood at Morphettville. It was the eighth G1 win for the gelding who has now won over A$6 million and a Group race in all five mainland states (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia), as well as in England, Japan and Singapore. In 39 starts, he’s won 21 races, with 10 placings. His next target is the G1 International Sprint in Singapore, and then on to Royal Ascot before invading California in November for the Breeders’ Cup—a privilege for which his connections must pay a $275,000 entry fee, but apparently Hollywood wants the perfect ending for its planned movie about the gelding bought for A$1,250(!) by taxi driver turned owner/trainer Joe Janiak.
Here's his April 18 win in the G1 TJ Smith at Royal Randwick, going the opposite direction from his most recent victory, and with only two weeks between races: