Grounded. Mine That Bird out of Travers

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Chip Woolley stabbed his right crutch at a weed in the shedrow of theSaratoga stakes barn Wednesday morning and thought about what mighthave been.

“Unnhh,” he said, sounding like he got punched in the gut. “There’s no way to describe the disappointment – no way to describe it.”

An hour earlier, the trainer decided to bypass Saturday’s Travers Stakes with Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird because of throat surgery performed Aug. 18. Woolley and owners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach made the call based on an endoscopic exam Wednesday. The exam showed significant healing and progress to the entrapped epiglottis, but also highlighted one area of concern on the left side. Woolley and the owners did not want to risk permanent damage for one race – even a race as important as the Travers.

Woolley said the area is still swollen, that it would most likely not be a longterm problem, but that the stress of a race could make things worse. The surgery, performed by Dr. Patricia Hogan at the Ruffian Equine Medical Center in Elmont, was a success. The timing, 11 days before a major race, was not.

“If this would have been a week sooner or the race a week later we might not have this doubt but here we are and this is what we’re dealing with,” Woolley said. “He could have run and I feel that he would have performed up to his capabilities, but you just don’t know if you would be causing more irritation to where we did the surgery and be causing him problems down the road – any time you’ve got inflammation, you don’t know what you’re going to have after the race.”

Woolley talked extensively about Mine That Bird’s career, not just his one and only Travers chance. The 3-year-old son of Birdstone upset the Derby, narrowly lost the Preakness to star filly Rachel Alexandra, finished third in the Belmont Stakes and was third again in the West Virginia Derby. The $1 million Shadwell Travers looked ideally suited to the gelding’s late-running style.

“It would have been some fun to go up there and take our best swing at it,” Woolley said. “It was the race post-Derby that was his very best opportunity. You’re still with 3-year-olds, it’s his distance, he loves it here, the whole thing. We were ready.”

Based in the stakes barn most of the meet, Mine That Bird worked well Tuesday though Woolley cautioned that Wednesday’s exam – and the horse’s longterm future – would be the deciding factor.

“As a trainer it’s your job to do what’s right for him not what’s right for yourself,” he said. “You’re supposed to be cautious. For me, running in this was really important but for him, in his whole career, it’s probably not as important as a lot of other spots there are going to be – Breeders’ Cups, possibly Dubai, he’s been invited to Japan . . . he’s got a lot of races in front of him.”

Mine That Bird will head back to New Mexico once a flight from Newark to El Paso has been arranged via FedEx, train with Woolley’s other horses and point for the Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita Oct. 10.

The Goodwood will be an ideal prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Nov. 7.

Though he’s not getting the Saratoga ending he hoped for, Woolley (whose assistant trainer has been managing 20-plus horses for months) will be happy to get home.

“I haven’t been home since we left for the Derby and it will be great to see all my friends that I haven’t seen for a long time and hang out for a while,” he said. “I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, I’ve slept in quite a few motel rooms since we started this . . . but I wouldn’t change anything. It’s been phenomenal. You couldn’t have drawn it up any better, other than this last little bit. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

He got the weed, roots and all.