Dalhart’s own captures the attention of a nation
Photo by Jessie Holmes
By Joshua Hunter
At the 141st running of the Belmont Stakes, Bennie “Chip” Woolley took it all in stride. After a whirlwind six weeks that culminated in Mine That Bird finishing third in the final race of the triple crown, he had become a legend.
The 1982 Dalhart graduate was catapulted onto the national scene when his little known horse sprinted to victory at the Kentucky Derby. At 50-1 odds, no one gave Chip or his horse any chance at a victory. “You couldn’t have drawn it up on paper or dreamt it up and made it much better then it was,” the 45-year-old trainer said. “To win the Derby with a 50-1 shot with no expectations of winning it. It was great.” It was at this point that the national media became enthralled, and Chip was about to become a larger than life figure.
Easily recognizable due to his large black cowboy hat and the crutches he had to use after breaking his leg in a motorcycle accident, the nation was paying attention. The stories began to surface of how Mr. Woolley had driven his young colt to the Churchhill Downs in Kentucky in a pickup truck and trailer for what would turn out to be a 21 hour trip with one stop for rest in Texas, while the more celebrated horses were being flown into town. Or, how he had met his future boss after siding with him in a bar room brawl. His legend continued to grow.
After narrowly finishing in second place to Rachel Alexander at the Preakness, Chip and his horse came into the Belmont Stakes as the 6-5 favorite. It was during his time at Belmont where people came to know and love Chip Woolley. A mere six weeks earlier, he was a virtual unknown, and on the Thursday before the race, he was opening the New York Stock Exchange; a truly meteoric rise in fame.
On the day of the final race you could genuinely feel the excitement. It was a perfect 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky, as 90,000 people crammed into Belmont Park to witness a possible historic event. As Mine That Bird made his way into the arena, people lined the promenade to take pictures and wish Chip and his horse a successful ride. As he entered into the stadium, the noise swelled to a fever pitch. Everyone wanted to know if this incredible underdog story was going to have a fairytale ending. Mine That Bird made a valiant effort down the stretch, but would be in third place as the race ended.
However, Dalhart should be proud of a man who rose to fame with such poise and character. Despite being constantly hounded by the media during the weekend, Chip also found time each day to spend with the children of Anna’s House. Anna’s House is a child care center for the benefit of working families at New York Racing Association Thoroughbred Racetracks. Donna Chenkin, Executive Director of the Belmont Child Care Association, said that Woolley sat down and played with and talked to the students, and that they quite readily crawled all over him, which he let them do with patience and amusement.
Chip’s mother Anne and father Bennie Woolley Sr. can be very proud of their son not only for his successes during the past six weeks on the racetrack, but also for how he handled it off the tracks. He showed a great affection for his sport and for his animals. Chip Woolley became famous, and we should all be able to applaud him for doing it with the dignity and class of a Dalhart Texan.