Veterinarian's horse beats 50-1 odds to win this year's Kentucky Derby - then nearly repeats the performance at the Preakness.
ROSWELL, N.M. — When veterinarian Leonard Blach started his equine breeding farm near Roswell in 1982 and named it Buena Suerte Equine, he couldn't have known how fitting that name would be in 2009.
Future prospects: Dr. Leonard Blach has high hopes for 2-year-old "Raise the Bridle" .
The Spanish words buena suerte mean "good luck."
It seemed that Blach had plenty of that the first Saturday in May, when Mine That Bird, a 3-year-old gelding he and his partner entered in the Kentucky Derby practically on a whim, overcame 50-to-1 odds to win the 135th running of the nation's most celebrated horserace.
Blach, 74, apparently is the first veterinarian to own a Derby winner.
But earning that distinction was based on more than luck.
That became clear two weeks after the Derby, when Mine That Bird nearly repeated his feat — this time in Baltimore's Preakness Stakes, second leg of racing's Triple Crown.
Once again coming from dead last but guided by a different jockey, the horse streaked its way through the pack to finish a close second to the filly Rachel Alexandra. It proved that Mine That Bird's success was more than a fluke and that Blach and partner Mark Allen chose well in acquiring him last year in Canada, where he was the champion 2-year-old, for $400,000. He had won four straight races at the time.
He watches another young prospect working out at his New Mexico breeding farm.
"A Kentucky agent told us about him. We made an evaluation and liked his pedigree," says Blach, who has been interested in racehorses much of his life and has an interest in five currently in training in New Mexico.
At press time, Blach told DVM Newsmagazine that Mine That Bird would compete in New York's Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in racing's crown.
"Mark and I were tickled that he did so well in Baltimore," Blach says. "Our jockey (Mike Smith) just couldn't break him loose soon enough; it was a real feat to finish second." (Smith was quoted as saying he believes that, given another quarter-mile of track, Mine That Bird would have won.)
Before they received an invitation to enter the Derby (invitations are based on a horse's earnings), Blach and Allen were planning to enter their horse in the $400,000-purse Lone Star Derby in Grand Prairie, Texas. Instead, almost on a whim, they decided to aim higher.
"When we were notified that we were Derby-eligible, we decided that, even though he might be a long shot, we'd just go there for the fun of it and the experience," Blach says.
After watching the Derby on television the last 20 to 30 years, this would be Blach's first visit to Louisville's Churchill Downs.
"We were watching from in the owners' boxes. I was pretty disheartened at first when he got bumped at the gate. Then he was getting mud in his face and pulled up a bit and soon was dead last by about 10 lengths. But I was confident he'd catch the pack again, and he did. I just didn't know he'd pass all of them."
When it was over, it seemed surreal to find himself standing in the winners' circle helping lift the trophy as cameras flashed, Blach recalls. He and Allen collected about $1.4 million as the winners' share of the $2.17 million purse.
Both credit the jockey they engaged, Calvin Borel, for pulling off the upset victory in 2 minutes, 2.66 seconds in front of 153,563 stunned spectators.
"If not for Calvin and his abilities, we wouldn't have won. It's that simple. I give him all the credit," says Blach.
But in the Preakness, Borel chose to ride Rachel Alexandra, becoming the first jockey in history to win the two major races on different horses.
For their horse's health care while on the racing circuit, Blach and Allen engage one of the veterinarians available at each racetrack. "We need to have someone licensed in that state," Blach explains. "Actually, we don't medicate that much — maybe just replace a few electrolytes after a race."
Allen, Blach's longtime partner, owns the neighboring Double Eagle ranch. "Mark and I have been friends for years, and we're in (the racing and breeding) business together," Blach told a post-Derby press conference. "I was in business with Mark's dad years ago. I've known him since he was a horse trainer. We've been good friends and partners since he bought the farm across from mine."
Blach, who received his DVM degree from Colorado State University in 1960, first operated an equine clinic in Santa Fe and practiced as a track veterinarian for about 10 years before starting his practice in Roswell in 1982. He specializes in Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred reproduction and embryo transfers.
Blach and his wife, Joanne, have been married 52 years. They have three children and nine grandchildren. One son, Kevin, is a large-animal veterinarian in the Roswell area.