The moment 50-to-1 long-shot Mine That Bird hit the Churchill Downs finish line, Jim Wilson knew: Somebody is going to make a movie about this horse.
That somebody turned out to be Wilson, an Oscar-winning producer and longtime Hollywood director best known for such films as “Dances With Wolves” and “The Bodyguard.”
“I was watching the (2009) Kentucky Derby on TV,” Wilson recalled. “It was one of the greatest races I’d ever seen. This horse stood no chance, yet he came from last to win by (almost) seven lengths. How did he do what he did? I thought there must be a great story (behind the horse). Then, when I started learning about his owners and his trainer, I liked it a lot.”
Wilson served as both producer and director in creating “50 to 1,” the real-life adventure of one of the most improbable Kentucky Derby winners to look through a bridle. In limited release in 2014, the movie is now out on video and available for download on demand – just in time for May 2, Kentucky Derby Day.
“We stuck pretty darn true to the story,” said Wilson in a phone interview from his Calabasas ranchette. “People who watch it say they can’t believe it, but this is how it really happened.”
Mine That Bird already is part of horse-racing lore. A little bay gelding, he was a juvenile champion in Canada. His first owners bought him as a yearling for $9,700, but were looking to sell. Besides being small, Mine That Bird was quirky and strong-willed with a crooked front leg.
Mark Allen, a cowboy millionaire, and Dr. Leonard Blach, a racetrack veterinarian, bought the thoroughbred for $400,000 with the intentions of winning a $1 million stakes in their home state of New Mexico. (As a salute to their hometown of Roswell, their silver-and-black racing silks feature a space ship and little aliens.) Mine That Bird never won in New Mexico, but his early exploits in Canada qualified him for the Kentucky Derby.
For a trainer of their one-horse stable, the cowboy hired an old bull-riding chum named Chip Woolley, whom he knew from his rodeo days, when they busted up bars along with bones.
“It’s kind of old-fashioned,” Wilson said of the movie, “but I wanted to shoot it in a particular way. I wanted to be true to that cowboy spirit.”
Like the feel of this family film, Woolley (portrayed by Skeet Ulrich) and Allen (Christian Kane) are throwbacks, too. They end arguments with fists and wear their black hats with pride. In the Sport of Kings, their horse becomes a punchline. But Mine That Bird takes them on the ride of their lives.
Wilson got lucky when he found one stunt horse who could do it all. Sunday Rest, a retired racehorse, plays Mine That Bird for big laughs, stealing hats and playing games. (Think Mr. Ed without the talking.)
“He’s a star and a ham,” Wilson said. “We just let him do his thing.”
On and off track, Woolley is almost luckless. He smashes his leg in a motorcycle accident five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. On a shoestring budget and crutches, he drives a pickup truck to Kentucky from New Mexico with Mine That Bird tucked into a one-horse trailer.
“They were such fish out of water,” Wilson said. “They got lost trying to get into the Churchill (barn area). They had trouble getting into the Derby (owners) party. The wives bought their Derby hats at Kmart and spray-painted them black. It was all true.”
At Churchill Downs, they get their big break: They hire jockey Calvin Borel, known for his fearless rail-hugging style and ranked among the best riders at that track. (A three-time Derby winner, Borel rides long-shot El Kabeir on May 2 in the 141st Kentucky Derby.)
Wilson, who reportedly put up $8.5 million to make the movie, took a gamble on Borel, too. He hired the jockey to play himself.
“That was probably the biggest risk I took,” he said. “Calvin had absolutely no acting background. He was reluctant at first, but he jumped in and was exceptional.”
Borel bridges movie and reality; Wilson used the actual Derby footage for the racing scenes.
“(The race) truly is amazing to watch,” Wilson said. “It looked like an act of God. Visually, it’s hard to beat.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.