Mine That Bird meets Mind That Curve
Derby-winning trainer knows horses and Hogs and Dogs
D. L. “Chip” Woolley limped into the national limelight after winning this year’s Kentucky Derby with Mine That Bird, the longest longshot in a century, at 50:1 odds. Woolley came to the winners’ circle at Churchill Downs that day on crutches with a broken leg, the result of a motorcycle accident. Along with his big black cowboy hat and no-B.S. attitude, that detail was one of the most intriguing aspects of the unknown trainer. The TV announcers didn’t say what kind of bike Woolley had been riding, but some viewers sized up his hat, his Fu Manchu beard, and his straight-shooting demeanor, and figured him for a Harley rider. They were right.
The small, splay-footed Mine That Bird proved that his Derby performance was no fluke by finishing a close second in the Preakness and coming in third in the Belmont. During that time, Chip Woolley was profiled extensively in the media, yet none of the coverage about him answered questions about his motorcycling and the accident that broke his leg. So he took some time recently at Churchill Downs to fill that gap for Thunder Press readers.
Chip Woolley cut an unobtrusive figure in the paddock area under the Twin Spires, where we met for an interview, but soon people started recognizing him. The amiable way he greeted them helps to explain why he has become such a well-liked figure in such a short time.
“Fans make this thing click,” he observes, as the first in a parade of well-wishers and autograph seekers approaches. They punctuate our conversation.
A few years ago, Woolley bought a new 2006 H-D Road King on a whim, and “just started riding.” He was hooked right away by what he called the sense of “freedom you don’t feel anywhere else.” For him, riding motorcycles is completely different from riding horses, which he has been doing professionally for 25 years.
A woman comes up with six Derby glasses for Chip to sign. Her pen is weak, so he pulls out his own Sharpie and writes his name on all of them. Her husband fetches him a cocktail, and he thanks them.
“This game’s high pressure,” Woolley said of horse racing, demanding a relentless schedule of pre-dawn wake-ups and hours in the saddle. So whenever he gets a chance, whether it’s for 30 minutes or three days, he gets out on his bike, because it’s therapeutic.
A teenage kid wants to get into the game, has a bunch of questions. Chip patiently has a bunch of answers.
Chip’s home in northern New Mexico, on the banks of the San Juan River, is in the heart of some beautiful riding country. His favorite road trips take him and groups of friends into Colorado, on mountainous routes in the neighborhood of Durango, Silverton, Telluride and Rico. With his crazy schedule on the southwest racing circuit, though, he says it’s tough to find the time to get out for longer trips.
“Please sign it for Steph,” asks the young dude. “Where’s she at?” responds Chip. Turns out, she’s just a few feet away, blushing.
The February accident that put Chip Woolley on crutches for the Triple Crown did not occur on a Rocky Mountain run, but on a routine ride back to his house from the racetrack. At the time he was riding his Big Dog Chopper along familiar roads, making a tight right hand turn, when he hit a patch of gravel. He was going only about 5 mph, but his machine came down on his lower right leg, badly fracturing both bones, as well as bones in his ankle.
Time out for a photo with a family; another of sisters; another of some friends. “Lot of pretty girls,” Chip points out.
Surgeons inserted twelve screws to repair the damage. “I’ve got a bunch of hardware in there!”
An older guy holds out his program for a signature, brags that his wife, standing nearby, bet on Mine That Bird: “She had him!” Another older guy asks him to sign the brim of his lucky hat, encrusted with Derby pins from many years.
Although he’s looking at three to eight months of rehabilitation before he can get back on a motorcycle, Woolley will be riding again, he says, “As soon as they let me.” On a warm, blue Spring afternoon in Kentucky, he says, “I’d be riding today. Just need a trainin’ wheel on the right side!”
As our talk about bikes concludes, a line of fans forms to greet Chip Woolley: horseman, biker, and all around good guy.