There is nothing lame about Chip Woolley's sudden celebrity as a thoroughbred trainer, though physical injury has been involved at times.
Before the motorcycle accident this spring that put the 45-year-old Woolley on crutches and made him the easiest thing on (not quite) two legs to spot in a Triple Crown crowd, before the bar fight in which Woolley helped out his future boss, Mark Allen, it was a shoulder injury - suffered in his then-chosen field as a bareback rodeo rider - that put Woolley in the racing business.
He was 19. He was a member of the rodeo team at Frank Phillips Community College (which also fields basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball and golf teams) in the Texas panhandle town of Borger. But when he "tore up a shoulder" in a rodeo spill, "I ended up at the racetrack to get fit again" for the bucking bronc circuit.
He went to Raton, N.M., hard by the Colorado border, to work as an exercise rider. And never wandered from the track. Via a route that was both circuitous and logically direct, here he is: trainer of the late-charging gelding that beat 50-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby and almost ruined Rachel Alexandra's coming-out party at the Preakness.
"I grew up a cowboy," Woolley said. His attire is a black cowboy hat, jeans, boots, and an enormous new belt buckle celebrating Mine That Bird's - and his - Kentucky Derby victory.
His father, Bennie Woolley Sr., was a rancher, managed a feed lot, sold cattle. "I was riding horses since before I can remember," he said.
He grew up in Dalhart, Texas, just south of the Oklahoma state line in what had been the center of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. A town of roughly 7,000 with an economy based on ranching and farming, Dalhart is home to the XIT Rodeo, which annually celebrates what had been the largest ranch in the nation.
When he was 25, Woolley attended the Kentucky Derby as a spectator, but with all the extracurricular activity, he told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "I barely saw a horse, so I said I wasn't coming back unless I had one running."
Allen, Mine That Bird's co-owner based in Roswell, N.M., said he was "running quarter horses at Raton" when he crossed paths with Woolley. The story is that Allen started a fight in a bar and Woolley, seeing Allen was outnumbered, came to his aid.
"He was kind of cocky," Allen said, "but he's a hard-working son of a gun."
Regularly assigned to galloping some of the more difficult-to-handle horses in Raton, Woolley was recommended as a prospective trainer to Allen by Allen's cousin.
"Horses," Woolley assured, "will talk to you. They all talk to you. You just have to listen. And they all have a style. It's our job to figure out what it is."
Not that training success was instant, and Woolley admitted going broke "a couple of times" along the way. Before 2007, he won only nine of 183 races. Suddenly, though, he makes training through a Triple Crown campaign look as easy as falling off a horse.