The odds were 50 to 1 on Mine That Bird at the 2009 Kentucky Derby. In fact, for much of the race, Mine That Bird was dead last. During the final turn at Churchill Downs, though, jockey Calvin Borel hugged the rail and stunned the crowd and the race announcer. Mine That Bird burst to the front and won.
This Hollywood story in the making, though, is much more than just about a horse with long odds winning the Kentucky Derby. “50 to 1” (2014) is the story of an eclectic group of cowboys, trainers, and ranch owners who marshaled their talents and surprised themselves and race fans.
Set in the enchanting lands of New Mexico, and along the roads to Kentucky, the beauty of this country appears almost as another character in this great horse story.
Producer/Director Jim Wilson (“Dances With Wolves”) and collaborator Faith Conroy (“Thor”) immediately visualized the story on film, and thus their journey began to secure rights to tell it. Wilson contacted the horse’s owners, Mark Allen and Leonard ‘Doc’ Blach. Then he co-wrote a spec script with Conroy, presented it to Allen and Blach, got their approval, and secured funding from many in the horse racing industry.
Chip (Skeet Ulrich) and Mark (Christian Kane) are rodeo riders whose paths first cross when Chip rescues Mark in a bar brawl. That’s that until 10 years later. The horse-training business Chip runs with his brother Bill (David Atkinson) is about to fail. Chip overhears Mark’s name on the news in a story about a high-priced auction, and decides to track him down.
Chip shows up at Mark’s ranch. After a crazy party with Mark and his cousin Kelly (Todd Lowe), Chip is sent by Mark to check out a horse in Canada called Mine That Bird. He persuades Mark and Mark’s business partner, ‘Doc’ Blach (William Devane), to buy him.
The horse, though, is a loser and meanwhile, Chip breaks his leg. Rider Alex (Madelyn Deutch) is brought in to help with the training. She and Chip clash. She’s a tattooed pierced exercise rider; he’s a good ol’ cowboy. When Mine That Bird is selected for the Kentucky Derby (based on winnings in Canada), this motley crew is shocked.
The film about friendship and hope also highlights the beauty of the hot dusty deserts, with a backdrop of blue-grey mountain ranges or bronze-colored mesas. Locations were discovered, on occasion, inadvertently. Chip’s ranch was found when Jim Wilson stopped by a feed store. The woman working there told him of a ranch outside of Las Cruces. It fit the bill.
Jim Wilson and Faith Conroy came across the bar used for the fight scene as they were leaving a location that wasn’t going to work for that scene. Here are Faith’s words: “So we’re driving along, chatting away, and I see this sign pointing down a road, advertising a place to get beer. I said, ‘Jim, we should check that out.’ We almost missed it on the way back from the other bar, but 10 minutes down that road we find this place that had been there since 1948.”
Jim continues the story, describing how they stopped a passerby and asked her if she knew about the bar. She told them to check with the folks next door. “So we go inside and we meet Pat, the owner’s sister, who’d been working there since she was 13,” Wilson says. “No one had ever shot a film there before, so I said, ‘Will you let me do a big brawl in here?’ They said, ‘Have at it, flip the tables over.’”
They also got permission to shoot at Churchill Downs, and shot there in over 20 locations, including the actual jockeys’ room, the barn, and the stall where Mine That Bird was housed. In fact, the jockey of the winning horse, Calvin Borel, plays himself in the film. It is his world.
Borel even brought his own tack for use with the horse. He helped with the design of the set of the jockeys’ room. And of course, on the horse, he naturally fell right into riding as he did in the 2009 Derby (though footage from the actually Derby was also incorporated into the film.)
Art imitates life which imitates art in this film. For instance, Chip Woolley and Mark Allen were on the set quite a bit, ensuring authenticity. Mark even loaned Harleys so that Kane and Lowe could ride from New Mexico to Churchill Downs as the cousins Mark and Kelly actually did. And, Chip loaned Ulrich the shirt he wore on Derby Day.
Woolley, leg in a cast, follows the Harleys in a truck as he hauls Mine That Bird 1700 miles to Churchill Downs. Alex (an amalgam of several people) accompanies him, and they clash as people do whose outlooks are so different. As they travel along the open roads, a begrudging kind of respect develops.
The open-hearted character of New Mexicans comes through in the genuine friendships that build in the story. When in Churchill Downs, Chip, Mark, Alex, Doc, and his family ignore the snubs of the bluebloods of the horse-racing world. They simply have a good time. The friendship between Mark and Chip is honest. This film is filled with humor and hope. At the premiere at the KiMo on March 19, the audience cheered as Mine That Bird raced his way to an unexpected and spectacular victory.
This film opens today in various theaters in all of New Mexico, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, Roswell to Las Cruces, and elsewhere around the State. This is a great opportunity to catch an enjoyable film about a horse with a sense of humor and a group of people who shared a stunning triumph.
Sources for some quotes: the Press Notes