FARMINGTON — In 2009, on the first Saturday in May, film producer and director Jim Wilson sat down at his California home to watch the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Wilson — who won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1990 for "Dances with Wolves" — expected a predictable race.
"All of a sudden, this horse out of nowhere won," Wilson recalled in a phone interview on Wednesday.
That horse was Mine That Bird, an American thoroughbred racehorse whose owners live in New Mexico. Wilson, who has been racing horses since 1991, watched on TV as the owners appeared in cowboy hats and boots, and the trainer was on crutches — not your typical Derby winners.
That intrigued Wilson enough to create a film based on Mine That Bird. The movie title, "50 to 1" is a nod to the horse's odds of winning the Kentucky Derby. The film will premiere Wednesday in New Mexico, and it and will open in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky next month. Screenings at Farmington's Allen Theaters will start Friday.
"It's really a New Mexico story," Wilson said.
Thirty New Mexican actors were cast in the film, which Wilson shot throughout New Mexico, mostly in the southern portion of the state. The film also includes footage from the Borderland Derby and the Sunland Derby at the Sunland Park Racetrack in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near El Paso.
One of the main characters in the movie is trainer Bennie "Chip" Woolley Jr., who worked with Mine That Bird. Woolley now operates a horse training facility in Bloomfield. In the film, he is portrayed by actor Skeet Ulrich.
While at Frank Phillips College in Borger, Texas, Woolley competed in rodeo but an injury ended his career. One summer, he returned to his hometown in Raton and galloped a horse for an acquaintance.
"By the end of the summer, I just figured I'd found my place," he said.
The work reminded Woolley of his love of horses, and he eventually bought his own and started training, he said during a phone interview on Wednesday from El Paso, where he is training a horse.
No love at first sight
His involvement with Mine That Bird started about six years ago.
Since he was a young adult, Woolley has been friends with Mark Allen, who, along with veterinarian Leonard Blach, were looking for a horse to race in the Sunland Derby. The two found a horse — Mine That Bird — in Toronto that had won four races in a row.
They consulted Woolley about the horse, and he flew to Canada in October 2008 to look at the gelding, whose asking price was $450,000.
"When I first saw him, I actually didn't like him that well," Woolley said.
He said Mine That Bird was smaller than an ideal racehorse, but Woolley stayed to watch the horse train.
"From the minute he stepped on the racetrack, he was a different horse," Woolley said.
The way the horse ran, his speed and his spirit won Woolley over. He haggled the price down to $400,000, never even thinking the gelding would make an appearance at the Kentucky Derby.
"Our whole intent was trying to win the Sunland Derby," he said.
On March 29, 2009, Mine That Bird took fourth place in the Sunland Derby.
While it was a disappointing finish, the horse had won enough money in graded stakes races over the season to qualify for the Kentucky Derby its owners quickly discovered. Much of the money it won came from Canadian races.
Currently, the 20 horses that compete in the prestigious Kentucky Derby qualify by earning points in certain prep races.
Prior to fall 2013, horses that competed in the derby were chosen based on a point system. The top 20 point earners won a place at the derby. Points were earned by placing at one of the 185 graded stakes races worldwide, which included the Sunland Derby.
Back in 2009, Woolley remembers discussing the odds of Mine That Bird winning the race with Allen and Blach.
He believed Mine That Bird could run the distance. The derby is 10 furlongs, or 1.25 miles, and most thoroughbreds peak at 1 mile. In contrast, the Sunland Derby is nine furlongs, 220 yards shorter than the Kentucky Derby.
The cast and crew of 50 to 1 is scheduled to make several stops in New Mexico to promote the film. The bus will stop at:
Alamogordo: Noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday at Allen Theater s Aviator 10, 3651 Mesa Village Drive in Alamogordo.
Ruidoso Downs: 3 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at Ruidoso Race Track with a meet and greet
World Premiere in Albuquerque: The movie will premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the KiMo Theater, 421 Central Ave. NW in Albuquerque. Red carpet arrivals will be at 7 p.m. Cast, filmmakers, Mine That Bird, the owners, trainer and jockey will attend. The public is welcome to come out and enjoy the red carpet festivities. This is a private screening. The movie opens throughout New Mexico on Friday. It opens nationwide on April 4.
Santa Fe: 2 to 3 p.m. p.m. Friday at the Regal Santa Fe Stadium Theatre, 3474 Zafarano Drive
Rio Rancho: 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday at Premiere Cinema 14, 1000 Premiere Parkway.
Albuquerque: 6:30 to 8 p.m Friday at Cinemark Century Rio 24 Theater, 4901 Pan American Freeway.
Las Cruces: 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Allen Theater s Cineport 10, 700 South Telshor.
Sunland Park: The cast and crew will attend the Sunland Derby at 1200 Futurity Park. A meet and greet will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Even though Mine That Bird had long odds, Woolley reasoned the rest of the field would not be competitive at 10 furlongs. Woolley said he and the horse's owners hoped the gelding would finish fourth and earn back the money it would cost to send him to the race.
When derby day came, Mine That Bird surprised everyone.
Even mid-race, no one expected the underdog to win. He was running 30 lengths back when he rallied to take the lead.
"His true ability that I had seen in him all along in my mind showed up on that day," Woolley said.
After Mine That Bird's win, critics speculated on how a horse with 50-1 odds could win the derby. Some said rain earlier in the day created a muddy track, allowing some horses to perform better.
Many of those critics, however, were silenced by Mine That Bird's performance in the second and third legs of the U.S. Triple Crown, a series of three races — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — for thoroughbreds. Mine That Bird finished second at Preakness and placed third in the Belmont Stakes.
Standing in the winners circle after the Kentucky Derby, Woolley said he had a hard time wrapping his head around what the team had just accomplished.
"When we won, it was a bit of a stunner for everyone, including us," he said.
The audience — including Wilson, who was watching the events unfold live on TV — was also stunned.
While the story captured the nation's attention, selling a horse movie proved to be a challenge, Wilson said. He said no studio wanted to produce a movie about horses, even one as remarkable as Mine That Bird.
So, Wilson raised funds for the movie, coaxing reluctant donors into financing the film.
"In this economy and everything else, you don't just find $1 million sitting under your bed," he said.
Eventually, Wilson secured enough donors for the movie, which he co-wrote with Faith Conroy and also directed and produced.
Directing the movie proved educational for Wilson.
While filming at the Kentucky Derby's Churchill Downs, Wilson worked closely with the track superintendent to recreate the sloppy conditions of the track in 2009. He drove water trucks over the track to create the mud but had to be careful to avoid creating dangerous conditions for the races later that day.
Even through he raced horses, Wilson said filming the movie provided him his first chance to spend time with jockeys in the locker room.
"It's an amazing sport when you think these guys compete every half hour," he said.
Actress Madelyn Deutch, who plays the role of Alex, Allen's best exercise rider, had a different experience. Deutch has been riding English style since she was 4 and has competed in show jumping, but that didn't prepare her for the racing saddle.
"As far as technique goes in terms of riding a horse, it's like night and day," said Deutch, in a phone interview on Thursday.
She found the idea of putting her weight on the horse's neck unsettling because in show jumping it would have caused her to fly off the horse's back.
And it required different muscles. The day after she first sat in the racing saddle, her muscles ached.
"I have never had so much trouble walking," she said.
Despite the pain, Deutch said she enjoyed filming. She visited New Mexico a few years earlier when her mother, who is also an actress, shot a film in Albuquerque. On her days off, she drove to Santa Fe and Taos, she said.
"I love wandering around, and I love the high desert," she said. "It's like the most beautiful, spiritual place."
Unlike many other horse movies, a single horse portrays Mine That Bird in "50 to 1." The horse, Sunday Rest, was born the year Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby and was 3 when the movie was filmed.
Mine That Bird, Woolley and the horse's owners even get cameos in the movie. Wilson said if you watch carefully in one of the bar scenes, you can spot him.
Woolley's presence is also felt in other parts of the film. The actor who portrays him, for example, wore the same shirt Woolley wore the day of the Kentucky Derby.
The movie, which is rated PG-13, will premiere at the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque.
"It's for anybody who believes in an underdog and a dream," Wilson said.