‘Bird’ a boon to former owner
By Tom Eblen
Phil Needham didn’t make it to Churchill Downs to see the horse he’d bred and foaled pull a stunning upset in the Kentucky Derby.
He had his own race to win.
Mine That Bird became the second-biggest long shot ever to win the Derby, covering the 1¼ miles Saturday in a little more than two minutes and two seconds.
A few hours earlier, Needham, 67, rode his bicycle 123 miles in six hours to win his age group in the 18th annual Calvin’s Challenge road race, which drew 210 cyclists to Springfield, Ohio.
Had the Georgetown resident not wanted to be done in time to see the Derby on television, he would have entered the bicycle race’s main event, where he set the record for his age group two years ago by riding 225 miles in 12 hours.
Needham’s racing partner was Bena Halecky, 50, of Lexington, whose 123-mile performance won her age group. She was named the best overall female racer.
“I went up to Louisville last Monday to see the horse work and meet the new owners and trainer, and I was very pleased with what I saw,” Needham said. “But the chances, you know, were very remote, 50-1. So because we had trained and planned for this race, we went to Ohio.”
It wasn’t the first time Needham has been wrong about Mine That Bird.
The Birdstone colt was athletic and strong. Needham’s wife, Judy, thought the yearling was promising. But Needham and his business partners decided to sell him.
“When the partners agreed to sell, we had the right to buy, but we let him go,” Needham said. “He brought $9,500, which was next to nothing. People spend millions trying to create a Derby horse.”
Needham had better instincts about Mine That Bird’s mother.
When Needham and Bill Betz ended their thoroughbred partnership last year, they decided to sell the mare Mining My Own at auction. But when the bids started coming in, Needham thought they were too low. He jumped in and ended up buying her for $8,000.
Needham and Halecky have been friends for years. Halecky, a Procter & Gamble executive, had urged him to buy P&G stock. “He said, ‘If I’m going to invest in your business, you need to invest in mine,” Halecky said. So she kicked in $4,000 for half interest in the mare.
As Needham and Halecky raced Saturday, the Derby was on their minds. They considered it an omen that their race was called Calvin’s Challenge and Mine That Bird was being ridden by jockey Calvin Borel.
“And then we kept seeing birds in front of us on the road and I kept yelling to Bena, ‘Mine That Bird!’” Needham said.
After their race, Needham and Halecky headed back to Lexington, stopping at a sports bar near Cincinnati to eat dinner and watch the Derby. The place was noisy, and the big-screen TV was hard to see. So it took them a few moments to realize that the impossible had happened.
“Finally, Phil looked at me and said, ‘We just won the Kentucky Derby!’” Halecky said. Soon their cell phones were ringing as friends called to congratulate them.
Several of their Bluegrass Cycling Club friends, who gathered to watch the Derby at Keeneland, bet and won big on the horse. But Halecky had put only a $2 bet on him. Needham didn’t bet anything, although his wife, who had always known better, put down $100 to win.
“It was one of the best Saturdays that anyone could ever have,” Needham said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Since ending his partnership with Betz, Needham has formed Needham Thoroughbreds, with interest in about 15 horses, including Mining My Own.
Needham had planned to focus more on his cycling.
He took up the sport a decade ago and has been riding competitively for seven years. He was sixth in his age group in the 24-mile time trial at the 2007 masters nationals. A first-place finish in last year’s Bluegrass State Games made him eligible to compete this August at the Senior Games in San Francisco, where he plans to enter the time trial and the road race.
“My goal is to be number one in my age group in the country,” he said.
But his 40-year career in thoroughbreds seems to have gotten a second wind.
The $8,000 mare he and Halecky own could now be worth millions if they sell her — or even sell part ownership in her — and perhaps even more in the long run if they keep her and breed her well.
Mine That Bird was the mare’s first foal. She also has a 2-year-old in training and a foal by her side, and she is pregnant with another. At age 8, Mining My Own could have 15 more years of productive life ahead, Needham said.
“Bena wants to continue to own her and have the fun; my wife wants to continue to own her and have the fun,” he said. “My best business sense tells me to keep at least 25 percent. I have to review that with my partner. I have to let the dust settle a little.”
As the dust was beginning to settle Monday afternoon, and it was beginning to rain, Halecky and Needham met near Georgetown for a bike ride through the countryside. They said they planned to ride 20-something miles, maybe more. After all, they had a lot to talk about.
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