Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Mine That Bird beat the odds 50 to 1 when the gelding came from behind to win the Kentucky Derby in 2009.
The win thrust the horse into the national spotlight, along with his New Mexico-based owners and trainer.
Five years later, there is more spotlight on the way as Oscar-winner Jim Wilson and Faith Conroy are bringing the story to the big screen with the film “50 to 1.”
“50 to 1” is the story of Mark Allen, from Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, who bought the Canadian gelding in late 2008 with his business partner Dr. Leonard Blach. The duo later enlisted Raton-born Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr. to train the horse.
Woolley has operated a stable based at Sunland Park Racetrack in southern New Mexico since 1991.
The film, which was made largely in New Mexico, will have its world premiere at the KiMo Theatre on Wednesday and Mine That Bird will be there.
The Derby winner is now retired and living in Roswell.
The stars of the film, Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, William Devane, Todd Lowe, Conroy and Wilson, as well as jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in the film, will attend the premiere. The group is riding across the country – from California to Kentucky – in a bus where they are screening the film and meeting fans.
The film follows Woolley, played by Ulrich, and Allen, played by Kane, as they meet in the summer of 1998.
Woolley comes to Allen’s rescue in a bar brawl, and the two escape with only scrapes and bruises.
Ten years later, Allen finds Woolley and his brother Bill, who are facing a stack of unpaid bills and little hope of winning to keep their horse-training business afloat.
As fate would have it, Woolley overhears Allen’s name on a television broadcast about a high-priced horse auction and the two cowboys reunite at Allen’s ranch.
Allen gets a call about a racehorse that’s up for sale named Mine That Bird. He decides to send Woolley to Canada, as his trainer, to check out the horse. Mine That Bird stuns Woolley with his speed, and the horse eventually qualifies for the Kentucky Derby.
“This is a story that inspires many people,” Wilson says. “It’s about overcoming the odds and finding a new path. We tried to keep the movie as close to real life as we could. Of course there are some embellishments, but the story remains pretty close to the real thing.”
The production began in 2011 and filmed at more than 30 locations in New Mexico – from Santa Fe and Las Cruces to Sunland Park – and multiple locations in Kentucky and California, including Churchill Downs and Santa Anita Park, tracks where Mine That Bird raced.
Wilson is no stranger to New Mexico as he filmed “Tin Cup” and “Wyatt Earp” in the Land of Enchantment.
“I know the terrain really well,” he says. “When we were scouting for the film, I knew there was no other place to film the movie. It’s a New Mexico story, and I wanted to keep the production here.”
Wilson said he scouted at least 40 towns for the film and recalls the hunt for the location of the bar scenes in the film.
“There are three or four bar scenes in the film,” he says. “I wanted them to be authentic. I looked at well over 20 bars, and each one had personality.”
Then Wilson, who shared the 1990 Best Picture Oscar with Kevin Costner for “Dances with Wolves,” stumbled on to a bar in Ponderosa, just west of Tent Rocks in northern New Mexico.
“It feels authentic because it is,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of budget for the film, so we tried to keep everything as we found it.”
Wilson said he was impressed with the crew and noticed that the members were all “filled with passion.”
“This movie is filled with so much of New Mexico, I think people will enjoy seeing the scenery,” Wilson said. “We weren’t on any sound stages at all. This was all filmed outside on location.”
Up close and personal
Kane, who plays Mine That Bird owner Mark Allen, enjoyed his time filming in New Mexico.
“It wasn’t my first time,” he said. “I was out there filming ‘Into the West’ years ago and couldn’t wait to get back. You can find God in those sunrises and sunsets there.”
While Kane filmed, he spent time with the real Allen.
“I didn’t have to put on a mask or a different hat to play Mark,” Kane said. “I feel very close to Mark and we’re not far off from each other. He’s a little more soft-spoken than I am, so I had to make him a little bigger than he is.”
Kane said he and Ulrich have been friends for years, so forging the bond that Woolley and Allen had wasn’t difficult.
“These are two guys who have a lot of respect for each other,” Kane said. “It’s the same relationship Skeet and I have.”
He said he drives through New Mexico at least once a year when he drives back home from Los Angeles to Oklahoma to visit family.
“I load up on my Hatch green chile and fill up my freezer,” he said. “I like to cook hot, and this is the best there is.”
Wilson says he took lots of care with this film because the event is still fresh in people’s minds.
He said films such as “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat” were sporting events that took place years ago, and he took advantage of having the real people so close.
“It was nice to have Chip and Mark on set,” Wilson said. “They watched, and I would stop and ask them for suggestions or critiques. They complied and gave us some pointers. It was a team effort.”