Against All Odds

The made-in-NM film 50 to 1 honors Mine That Bird, an unlikely Kentucky Derby winner trained in Roswell. This month, the KiMo Theatre hosts the world premiere.

NEED TO KNOW
The 50 to 1 world premiere takes place at the KiMo Theatre, in Albuquerque, March 19 (421 Central Ave N.W. 505-768-3522; kimotickets .com). The film moves to theaters throughout New Mexico March 21 and to other states beginning April 4. For theater locations, to view the trailer, and for more information, visit 50to1themovie.com.

See the movie trailer.

On May 9, 2009, at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Kentucky, a feisty Canadian gelding with outturned legs named Mine That Bird came from 30 lengths behind to nail the second-biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history. At 50-to-1 odds, Mine That Bird crossed the finish line nearly seven lengths ahead of 18 other horses, stunning a crowd of more than 150,000 spectators and an international television audience.

It’s no wonder Mine That Bird’s monumental Run for the Roses caught the eye of veteran filmmaker Jim Wilson (producer of the blockbuster hits Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard), a longtime racehorse owner who for years had been looking for a horse story worthy of a film adaptation. “I was absolutely blown away by the victory,” Wilson says, “and I knew I had to find out more about the horse and the people behind him. Were they real characters with an interesting background? Was there more to this than an unexpected win? I’m a guy who likes underdog stories; I had to find out more.”

That meant traveling to other horse races around the country and to New Mexico, where Mine That Bird owners Mark Allen (played by Christian Kane) and Leonard “Doc” Blach (played by William Devane) had trained the horse on their ranches in Roswell just before the 2009 Derby. “That horse had a prior race history with owners in different places before landing in Roswell,” Wilson says, “but the heart of this film, 50 to 1, is steeped in New Mexico ranching and horse-racing life.”

When Wilson traveled to New Mexico and met trainer Chip Woolley (played by Skeet Ulrich), who conditioned Mine That Bird for the Derby, he found a nononsense, hands-on trainer with a big heart who took great care of his horses. “Here’s a cowboy who, while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident and nursing a broken leg, drove this horse all the way from Roswell to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Derby. Chip, Mark, and Doc? They’re all tough cusses, but that’s what constitutes the spirit of this film: going for broke when it seems like an impossible dream.”

Wilson, who also serves as 50 to 1’s director and co-screenwriter along with writer Faith Conroy (a script supervisor on the made-in-NM Thor), was no stranger to the Land of Enchantment when the project began to take shape. The state’s landscapes and buildings served as the backdrop for two of Wilson’s prior production credits: Wyatt Earp (1994) and Swing Vote (2008), both featuring Dances with Wolves star Kevin Costner. So Wilson already had a feel for the terrain and seasonal weather patterns throughout the state, and in order to maintain the authenticity of the story, he says, “no other locations would do. Chip and the others took me around and showed me Mine That Bird’s life up to that point, so we really got a feel for the places and people involved in the story. New Mexico sort of becomes a character of its own in this one.”

A majority of the film was shot in New Mexico between September and October of 2012, and the crew consisted of more than 90 percent New Mexico talent, according to Wilson. The production also employed at least 30 New Mexico actors and more than 550 New Mexico extras. “We knocked out roughly 35 to 40 locations in 40 days,” Wilson says, “including spots in Las Cruces, Sunland Park, Tijeras, Corrales, Bernalillo, Albuquerque, Edgewood, and Santa Fe.”


RIGHT MEN FOR THE JOB

Wilson isn’t comfortable directing unless he and his crew are uniquely familiar with a film’s subject matter, which posed a few challenges when it came to casting 50 to 1. “I’ve been racing horses for 25 years,” he explains, “and some horses can get a oneoff win with fairly bad odds—especially if it races enough. This situation was different. This was a fish-out-of-water story, and the cast’s performance—especially around horses—had to reflect that perfectly.”

While Wilson was scouting locations in New Mexico, time was running out to cast the role of trainer and Ratón native Chip Woolley. “So there I am,” Wilson explains, laughing, “sitting in my hotel room somewhere in New Mexico, and I get an e-mail from Skeet Ulrich [Scream, Jericho, the Into the West television miniseries]. It’s his audition tape. He had converted his garage into a mini film set, put on a cowboy hat and a fake mustache, and just went for it. We practically hired him on the spot. He brought dimensions to the Chip role that I still marvel at. He was a natural.”

The real Woolley grew up around horse tracks in the Texas panhandle and started riding bareback broncos in local rodeos as soon as he was old enough. But horse training was his true calling, and the New Mexico racing circuit soon became his backyard. He eventually settled in Bloomfield, in the northwest part of the state.

“You know who wins the Kentucky Derby every year?” Woolley asks, deadpan, during a phone interview. “The man who brings the best horse that day. And for one day, it was me. I was born and raised on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and I fit in the rodeo world more than I do the fancy racing one. But after spending enough time exercising horses, I felt that racing was where I belonged. Over time, it just became my profession, and it paid off—all the marbles in one run.”

Ulrich, nephew of NASCAR living legend Ricky Rudd, is no stranger to race culture, albeit one with a different kind of horsepower. The need for speed and a competitive spirit weren’t the only things he and Woolley had in common, though. “We both love mathematics intensely,” Ulrich says, “and Chip’s a horse-racing scientist to the nth degree. We spent a lot of time together in New Mexico, and it was amazing to investigate Chip’s motivations and desires when it came to winning the race. There’s more to this guy than meets the eye, is the lesson here. Getting to the top of one’s profession—despite every obstacle imaginable being there almost as if by decree—is never a dull ride.”

Casting the jockey was a no-brainer for Wilson. He wanted, and got, the rider who took Mine That Bird across the finish line in Louisville in 2009: Cajun horse-racing veteran Calvin Borel, who also earned the Kentucky Derby Gold Cup in 2007 and 2010. “On this point, we were accepting no imitations,” Wilson says, “and it just worked out that Calvin had the time and wanted to participate in the project. We shot the race scenes at Churchill for authenticity, and Calvin’s participation made them that much more genuine.”

After the Derby win, Mine That Bird continued racing that year in pursuit of the Triple Crown. He finished second in the Preakness Stakes and third in the Belmont Stakes. He was retired from racing in November 2010 and now lives at coowner Mark Allen’s Double Eagle Ranch, in Roswell. He was played in the film by a three-and-a-half-year-old Canadian horse, named Sunday Rest.

The film is being distributed by Wilson’s own Ten Furlongs LLC production company. On March 19, 50 to 1 will get its world-premiere screening at the KiMo Theatre, in Albuquerque, and on March 21 the film will be released to more theaters in New Mexico. Wilson plans to roll out the film state by state. And he’s promoting 50 to 1 in a most unorthodox way.

“We’re not doing festivals, really,” he says. “Instead we’re wrapping a tour bus with 50 to 1 imagery, filling it with cast members and other people who worked on the film, and going state to state, spreading the word one town at a time. We’re starting in New Mexico.” ✜