The Derby winner's Alaska ties are twofold

MINE THAT BIRD: Horse's sire lives on a farm managed by Anchorage man.

May 9, 2009 

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As horse racing's spotlight continues to shine on the Kentucky Derby's long-shot wonder horse, it is casting a light on another horse with Alaska ties.

And thanks to Mine That Bird's improbable victory last Saturday at Churchill Downs, the attention has been flattering. For a change.

While Mine That Bird has been basking in popularity since defying 50-to-1 odds to win the Derby, his sire, Birdstone, is best remembered for spoiling everyone's fun at the 2004 Belmont Stakes when he beat Smarty Jones and denied horse racing of its first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

"He was the villain," says Michael Hernon of Gainesway Farm, where Birdstone now lives.

Now he's been vindicated -- much to the delight of John Hendrickson, the Anchorage man who manages Gainesaway and is married to Birdstone owner Marylou Whitney, the famous socialite who counts Alaska as one of her favorite spots.

"It's very humbling," Hendrickson said. "People knocked him. People kept on doubting him. People said he's too tiny, not good looking. He's tiny, but mighty."

The same is being said about Mine That Bird, whose tie to Alaska is owner Mark Allen, who in turn has ties to the federal corruption case that has taken down several Alaska politicians. Allen's father, former Veco chief Bill Allen, pleaded guilty in 2007 to bribing Alaska politicians, but in a plea deal won immunity for his son. Bill Allen has testified that his son paid off an unidentified legislator.

For Whitney, who was overcome with tearful excitement when Mine That Bird pulled off the upset, the Derby victory was affirmation that she was right all along about her stallion's progeny.

"It was the most exciting moment in my life," Whitney said. "I don't think people believed in Birdstone like I did."

They do now. And as Hernon, the director of sales at Gainesway, eagerly points out to any owner of a mare determined to set up a mating: "This is not a one-hit wonder."

Derby weekend alone verifies that. Of the 19 Derby starters, two came from Birdstone's first crop -- including Summer Bird, who finished sixth. He also produced Stone Legacy, the distant runner-up to Rachel Alexandra in the Kentucky Oaks.

Since the Derby, Gainesway has been flooded with calls to make a breeding appointment with Birdstone. Whitney has no immediate plans to raise his $10,000 stud fee, even though she knows she could get much more.

Smarty Jones, for example, got $100,000 for his first crop, and Smarty Jones is no Birdstone. At the 2004 Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones appeared seconds away from ending racing's long drought without a Triple Crown. Then, in a burst of late speed came the compact but muscular Birdstone, and history was foiled again.

It was Birdstone's most momentous day on the track, yet it came as most of the country was pulling against him.

Five years later, Mine That Bird -- another small horse that seemingly came out of nowhere -- made a daring move along the rail under jockey Calvin Borel for one of the biggest upsets in history.

Birdstone had about 80 breeding appointments scheduled this year prior to the Derby and now that total is at 110 and rising, Hernon said. As for the stallion himself, Whitney insists he is not for sale.

Her family has been in the horse breeding business for four generations, once owning the land where Gainesway now sits.

However, it has been all mares since she and Hendrickson took over. The one exception was Birdstone, who was retired from the track and became a stallion in 2005 when a bone chip was detected in his ankle. Whitney was so attached to him, she couldn't let him go.

She is like that with all her favorites. Her late-husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney, sold off the entire family line of horses in the late 1980s and told his wife he wanted her to find another line of work.

"I said, 'Please, I love these mares,' " Whitney said.

And so, after Sonny Whitney died in 1992 and especially after Marylou Whitney married Hendrickson in 1997, Marylou went to work buying them all back.

Some were hard to find, hidden in private sales, but they all had meaning. Among them was Dear Birdie, who would become broodmare of the year, and it was her mating with 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone that produced Birdstone.

Birdstone still isn't the most sought-after stallion at Gainesway, where the likes of breeding stars Afleet Alex, Mr. Greeley and Tapit also live.

But he's the most efficient. Veterinarian Rocky Mason says 74 percent of Birdstone's breeding sessions results in a conception -- the highest in the farm's roster of stallions. The industry average is around 50 percent, Mason said.

As a gelding, Mine That Bird can't follow Birdstone to the breeding shed. That's OK with Whitney and Hendrickson, who consider his Derby triumph a tribute to their stallion. At midnight after the Derby, they left a dozen roses at Birdstone's stall to salute him for the accomplishment.

In all the years his wife has been around horses, this is truly her proudest moment, Hendrickson said.

"She got her lottery ticket, and she won," he said.

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