Photo courtesy of Ten Furlongs
Actor Skeet Ulrich (as Mine That Bird's trainer Chip Woolley) and jockey Calvin Borel star in the movie 50 to 1.
“When was the last time you did something for the first time?” was Madisonville’s MaryLou Boal’s mantra when recruiting friends to appear alongside her in the upcoming film 50 to 1, the story of Mine That Bird’s shocking upset in the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
You see, MaryLou had the inside track as her and her husband’s niece, Faith Conroy, was one of the writers and co-producers of the film about what happens when a group of New Mexico misfits surprisingly find that their crooked-footed racehorse has qualified to run on the first Saturday in May—and wins the blanket of roses. “Come on,” she would say. “It’ll be fun, and how often do you get a chance to be in a movie?”
Amazingly, more people said no than yes, which is strange for a woman who is unaccustomed to rejection. “Most of them said they were too busy, but I think they missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.
Bob Boal, MaryLou’s husband of 50 years and a retired financial manager for Madisonville’s hospital agrees, but admits he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. “When she [Faith] first asked us, we thought it was for a day instead of a full week.
“When we found out we were getting paid, that was an unexpected bonus because we honestly would have paid them for the experience,” Bob said.
“It’s just so interesting,” said MaryLou, a travel agent by trade, who did recruit a few folks, including some friends from Frankfort and Carolyn and Phillip Ferrell, also of Madisonville. “We had no idea that we’d get to see the filming from both sides but we did, and it was all just so delicious.”
The Boals, who have yet to view the final product, hope to see themselves in several scenes behind rival trainer Bob Baffert’s box, while the Frankfort friends can be seen—at least in the trailer—cheering behind the box of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
The Ferrells own and operate Madisonville-based Vette Dreams, which buys and sells vintage and rare Corvettes nationwide. “Most of my down time during the filming was spent with the actress who played trainer Bob Baffert’s wife [New Mexico-based actress Suzanne Wilcox], who happens to be in the market for a ‘Kentucky blue’ 1969 [the year she was born] convertible Corvette. We’re still looking, but it’s allowed us to keep in touch after the filming was over” said Carolyn Ferrell.
Like Bob, Carolyn, at times, wasn’t sure what she’d gotten herself into. “MaryLou is, well, persistent,” she said. “She seldom takes no for an answer, and she told us we’d enjoy being in the film. She kept saying, ‘Come on. When was the last time you did something for the first time?’
“Honestly, it was fun. It was the most fun I’ve had since … Well, honestly, I don’t know when,” Carolyn said.
Wilcox, the Corvette devotee, appeared as Skylar’s body double on the television series Breaking Bad. She was joined in 50 to 1 by Skeet Ulrich, as Mine That Bird’s trainer, Chip Woolley; Christian Kane, as Mark Allen, co-owner of the Kentucky-born Thoroughbred; and William Devane as co-owner Leonard “Doc” Blach.
Professional actors play many of the key figures, such as Baffert, one of the rival trainers in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. For Kentucky viewers, however, the most recognizable face is that of Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in the film.
“From what I’ve seen, I love the movie,” said Borel between races at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park. “What I love is that it’s real—really real—and it’s more about the horse [Mine That Bird] than anything else.”
This is Borel’s first film role, but he’s more than used to being in front of the camera—or a bank of cameras. “It was an interesting process, but it’s much slower paced than anything I’m used to. The days are long—from sunrise to sunset—with maybe 30 minutes of action.
“It was a good experience,” said Borel. “I’m certainly glad that I did it.”
Seeing Mine That Bird rally from nearly 30 lengths back stunned writer/director/producer Jim Wilson and Conroy, his collaborator. “That’s where the journey really began,” Wilson said, “seeing all this little horse had come through in what they call the greatest two minutes in sports. Well, I saw the greatest two minutes and said, ‘We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. Is there a story behind this horse?’ ”
Two weeks later, the ultimate underdog story unfolded during the pre-race show leading up to the Preakness Stakes, when NBC ran a feature piece on Mine That Bird, Allen, Blach and Woolley.
“I saw the trainer on crutches, in a black cowboy hat and jeans, being interviewed by a reporter about the motorcycle wreck he had before the Derby, and how he drove Mine That Bird across the country with a broken leg,” Conroy said. “I knew these people and their story would make a great movie.”
By the time Wilson and Conroy reached out to Blach and Allen, another group was slated to make a film about Mine That Bird. “I figured it just wasn’t in the cards.”
About a year later, however, Wilson heard that financing for the other film had fallen through, and it no longer was moving forward. He contacted Blach again.
“We offered to write a new script on spec,” Conroy said. “Doc and Mark wanted to meet us, so we did at the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, where we first showed them the script, which proved to be a hit with the owners.”
“We spent the next three months polishing it,” Wilson said. “My expertise in horse racing and [Conroy’s] expertise in character and dialogue proved a good combination.”
Ultimately, more than 30 locations were used in New Mexico, five in Kentucky and one in California for the film. The most critical location needed was Churchill Downs. “No other track looked like Churchill, and to film anywhere else would hurt the film’s authenticity,” said Wilson. The filmmakers were given complete access to the track. Wilson spent three days walking the grounds, envisioning each scene. “It felt remarkable walking on such hallowed ground,” he said.
The cast and crew filmed in the jockeys’ room, in the barn and stall where Mine That Bird was housed, in the paddock in the same spot Mine That Bird was saddled, and in the winner’s circle, where they recreated the celebration of the horse’s shocking victory.
Needless to say, no one else could have played Borel. “Often, when you see horse racing films, there isn’t as much authenticity as the filmmakers would have hoped for,” Wilson said. “We had the great fortune to have Calvin play himself, and he’s a total natural.”
“They made it easy for me and told me to remember ‘to be myself,’ ” Borel said. “I was certainly in my comfort zone, and I’m pleased with the outcome.”
It’s easy to understand why Borel would play himself. He’s a rather familiar face and casting anyone else would have been a mistake. He’s one of a kind. A native of rural Louisiana, Borel began his riding career when he was 8. Through his 30-year career,
he’s earned the nickname “Calvin Bo-Rail” for his often-used strategy of riding along the rail, which helped him defy the 50-to-1 odds aboard Mine That Bird.
He’s the only jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies in a four-year span, aboard Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009) and Super Saver (2010). Of Borel’s 5,000-plus career wins, more than 1,000 have come at Churchill Downs.
“The thing I remember most about Mine That Bird was that he got better each time out,” Borel said. “I had four or five horses [to choose from] heading into the 2009 Derby—a couple of them were pretty good—but once I looked at the films from his 2-year-old campaign and listened to Chip [Woolley], I could tell he knew his horse and that the potential was there.”