By guest contributor from Cowboys & Indians, Kathy Wise
With plenty of panache, longtime announcer Tom Durkin wasted no time narrating the epic 2009 race. After all, he only had two minutes to cover.
“And it’s Join in the Dance who’s racing for the lead; Musket Man has some early speed on the inside,” Durkin said as the horses leapt out of the starting gate en masse. Durkin, too, was off and running. But one horse and rider escaped his notice. Within 30 seconds, the 50-to-1 long shot, Mine That Bird, was out of frame and out of mind after falling several lengths behind the last horse in the pack.
In fact, for most of the race, the veteran broadcaster appeared to forget all about the straggler, mentioning him only once in what appeared to be a self-correction. After making the call at the minute mark that Mr. Hot Stuff was “the last of them all,” Durkin realized that there was still another horse even farther in the rear.
“So down the back stretch run, all you’ll find well behind the rest of them is Mine That Bird,” he said as a seeming afterthought before moving back to the more notable 50-to-1 contender, Join in the Dance, and the real bet-getters as they jockeyed for position at the front.
Rounding the final curve, Durkin announced the eight front-runners one by one. Mine That Bird wasn’t on the list.
“As the field turns for home, at the top of the stretch it’s still Join in the Dance with a tenuous lead, Regal Ransom, and Pioneer of the Nile [as they] strike the front just outside the eighth pole. …” It was at that point, only if you weren’t watching any of the leaders, that you could catch a glimpse of a fourth horse passing them all on the inside. Where he came from was difficult to tell. Durkin didn’t actually notice the upstart until he was three lengths in the lead, hooves flying, the finish line within grasp.
“Down toward the inside, coming on through, that is, um … Mine That Bird now coming on to take the lead as they come down through the finish!” Durkin paused before shouting, in disbelief, “And it’s spectacular! Spectacular upset! Mine That Bird has won the Kentucky Derby! An impossible result here!”
Durkin would shortly thereafter retire from announcing Triple Crown races, citing the cumulative stress of 34 years of being “beneath the hammer” and his frustration at this missed horse. But he shouldn’t have taken it personally. It was the second biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history. Going into it, the horse with the slightly crooked legs and his unusual band of renegade cowboy trainers and owners didn’t seem to have a shot — not even a long one. No one believed it could happen.
Except, of course, the horse himself. And his jockey. And the men who put their money, sweat, and faith behind them.
Dances With Wolves producer Jim Wilson became a believer as soon as he saw the race and watched a couple of black-hatted cowboys raise the gold cup. There was a story there, he figured — one worth telling. He was right, and this March his film 50 to 1 will tell it.