Among the many things the racing world has learned about trainer Chip Woolley in recent months is that he will always heed what his horse tells him rather than what history dictates.
Thus, when it came time to choose the ideal mid-summer prep race for his Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, it was hardly a shock to see the bay gelding end up in a most unconventional spot.
Though normally lost in the shuffle of what is traditionally a jam-packed weekend of racing, this year's Grade II West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Race Track will have a new set of eyes on it this Saturday.
Mine That Bird is slated to make his first start since running third in the Belmont Stakes eight weeks ago when he faces five rivals in the 11⁄8-mile test.
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That the Birdstone gelding will become the first Derby winner to race in West Virginia is not simply a result of his connections just wanting to be different.
While the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga this Saturday and the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday are the usual steppingstones for top 3-year-olds this time of year, Woolley felt Monmouth's speed-favoring track and shorter stretch would only be a detriment to his famously late-running classic winner.
"The Haskell has always been a speed-biased track and that's not a track that will set up well for my horse," Woolley said during a national teleconference Tuesday. "It has everything that is against the running style my horse has. We decided to come to Mountaineer because we felt he would like it and it seemed like a better spot for my particular horse. We need a track our horse can close over."
Mine That Bird has enjoyed past successes while taking the path less traveled — having prepped at New Mexico's Sunland Park before his stirring Derby triumph.
Although it remains to be seen how sharp the gelding will be off his eight-week break, Woolley said he is bringing a horse that is fully cranked into the $750,000 contest.
"I think he's really on his game and is doing as well as you can ask a horse to do," the affable trainer said. "With a horse like this, you want to win them all and don't want to leave anything out there to get away from you. You never go into a race with a horse like him if you're not aiming to lay it all on the line."
The presence of a Derby winner may not have drawn many contenders into the race, but the West Virginia Derby is not likely to be a cakewalk for Mine That Bird.
Grade III winner Big Drama is coming off a 7-length win in the Red Legend Stakes at Charles Town on June 20, and he is likely to be the lone speed in the race.
"Sure it's a big concern anytime you get into a situation like that," Woolley said. "If (Big Drama) bounces away from there and gets a free lead, it's going to be tough to run him down."