(The following column is an extract from a longer piece that will appear in the June edition of Illinois Racing News, which is edited by Joan Colby. Joan forwarded the article, written by former Chicago Tribune turf writer Neil Milbert — one of the most respected names in the business.)
By Neil Milbert
There’s an Illinois subplot to the fascinating tale of Mine That Bird, the 52-1 longshot who came from last in the 19-horse field to win the 135th running of the by 6 ¾ lengths.
Rob Marcocchio of the Assurance Agency Ltd., in Schaumburg , Illinois, played a role in the making of a Derby winner. Growing up in Toronto, Marcocchio became fast friends with a fellow horse lover, Peter Lamantia, and their friendship continued into adulthood.
In 1993, Lamantia raced one of Canada’s finest 3-year-old fillies, a chestnut daughter of Vice Regent named Aspenelle.
“Vice Regent [by Northern Dancer] was one of the top broodmare sires that ever lived,” Marcocchio said. “Northern Dancer went to Maryland and the rest is history. Vice Regent stayed in Canada and got the best mares.”
His daughter Aspenelle went off the 5.80-1 second choice in the Oaks, and she wound up second to the prohibitive 1-5 favorite Deputy Jane West in that Grade I $191,435 race run on a sloppy track at Woodbine. But she came out of the race with a bowed tendon.
Lamantia had to retire her and he followed the advice he had been given by his boyhood friend, Marocchio, who’d recommended that she spend her broodmare career outside Lexington, Ky., at the 300-acre Needham/Betz farm owned by Phil Needham and Bill Betz.
“I had put him in touch with the Needham/Betz people previous to the injury,” Marcocchio recalled. “They were long-time clients — both in insurance and as breeders; I sent them many horses. Needham/Betz bought 50 percent of her, Peter kept 25 percent and, because of my recommendation, Jim Blackburn, who was a longtime friend of Phil Needham’s, bought 25 percent.”
Blackburn is the founder of Assurance Agency Ltd., one of the largest privately held insurance brokerages in the Midwest with headquarters in Schaumburg.
Beginning in 1996, Aspenelle produced 12 consecutive foals for the partnership. Her sixth foal was themare Mining My Own, the dam of Mine That Bird.
“They bred Aspenelle to a number of top sires, including Crafty Prospector, and they sold the foals all the way up to $400,000,” Marcocchio continued. “They bred to Smart Strike before Smart Strike was famous and before Curlin .
“Mining My Own got hurt in her stall when she got tied up in the webbing and her head became deformed. They couldn’t sell her so they kept her. That’s when Bill decided to breed her to this new sire Birdstone.”
Birdstone, who stands at the Beck family’s Smarty Jones flaunted a $100,000 fee., thwarted ’ bid by winning the Belmont and later that summer he won the Travers. He entered stud in 2005 for a fee of only $10,000, while
Mine That Bird was a late foal (the Kentucky Derby was run eight days before he actually became a 3-year-old) and, like his father, he is a small horse.
“I saw him in the field,” Marcocchio remembered. “Peter asked me to look at him because they were getting rid of him.”
Mine That Bird’s breeders didn’t envision him to be a standout at the sales because of his size and because he toes out “pretty excessively,” according to Needham.
They were right. When Mine That Bird was consigned to the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling auction he was purchased for $9,500 by Dominion Bloodstock.
“It’s what they call a junk sale,” Marcocchio said. “It’s catered for people who can’t get into the September sale (at Keeneland). They have a one-day sale of 125-150 horses and a bunch of them are leftovers from the September sale. But Big Brown came out of that sale.”
The Saturday prior to the Derby, Marcocchio and his friend and thoroughbred investment partner, Chicago TV anchorman Ron Magers, had dinner with Betz.
“The conversation came up of the mishaps at the farm over the last 18 months,” Marcocchio said. “He talked about the five mares who aborted — two were ours — and the eight mares that did not get in goal — one was
ours. He said that the breeding business goes in streaks and was hopeful that if everybody stays positive and confident ‘one day I believe there will be a Derby winner that will come off my farm.’ ”
Little did he know that seven days to the hour of those comments, a little horse by the name of Mine That Bird would electrify the world by crossing the finish-line first in the 135th Kentucky Derby.
“He also mentioned that he was hopeful that when the Derby winner came, Ron and I and our partners would be a part of it. Here’s hoping that there is another Derby winner that will come from his farm and that our names will be down as breeders.”