In promotion of the film “50 to 1,” actor Skeet Ulrich, along with producer Jim Wilson, writer Faith Conroy, and actor Todd Lowe (who plays Kelly Denninton), rode into town Thursday on a tour bus bedecked in scenes from the movie. They joined real-life trainer Chip Woolley and owners Mark Allen and Leonard “Doc” Blach for a meet-and-greet with fans at the Kentucky Derby Museum in support of the film’s release in Kentucky theaters Friday, Apr. 18. Click here  to read my review of the film.
“50 to 1” depicts the unbelievable underdog tale of an unlikely Kentucky Derby winner, longshot Mine That Bird. Mine That Bird, off at odds of 50-1, was barely given a mention in the press in the weeks leading up to the 2009 Kentucky Derby. When he sneaked up the rail under jockey Calvin Borel to win Kentucky Derby 135, fans were clamoring for their programs to see just who this horse was.
Ulrich, who’s known for such works as “Scream” and “Jericho,” plays trainer Chip Woolley. Most may remember Woolley as the tall guy with the horseshoe mustache and black cowboy hat that hobbled to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle on crutches. I had a chance to talk one-on-one with Ulrich about his work on the film, Kentucky Derby, and more.
JO: You said previously that you weren’t familiar with the Mine That Bird story. What did you think after you heard the details of the story?
SU: The first details I got were from the script and I thought, ‘there’s no way’ and upon further research, I was blown away at not only the accuracy of the script, but the amazing nature of the story. Chip [Woolley], Mark [Allen] and Doc [Blach]’s journey to get Mine That Bird, to bring him here [Churchill Downs] and how they were somewhat ostracized and ignored and that they really got the last laugh. Not to mention the heartbreaking piece of Calvin [Borel], his ode to his parents as he rode into victory lane. I was blown away by all of it. All the pieces of it.
JO: Did you go back and watch videos of Mine That Bird’s races?
SU: No. Well, I watched all of the ones we depicted, so I kind of knew what was going on when we would go to film it…from the Sunland Derby and Santa Anita. I watched as many as were available.
JO: So many racing related movies have been made well after the event occurred, so people couldn’t go back and pull up a video of the actual event. How was it to portray someone already publicly known and who’s standing there watching you do it?
SU: It’s a challenge. He, from the start, knew it was a movie. It’s definitely a challenge. You want to make sure you do your best to portray the truth of his heart, his feelings, his thoughts, the emotions that go into his life and to what he does on a day-to-day basis. I figured out his physicality pretty quick, his voice took a while to come to and took a lot of trial and error to get it somewhat close. A lot of people close to Mark have said that I got him really good, so I’ll stand by that.
JO: Was that the most challenging?
SU: Yeah, vocally it was. That was probably the toughest part of it. Everybody has their own cadence and rhythm and way of saying things and I keyed into a few things and as we had more drinks I got more info. Yeah, that was the toughest part of it.
JO: What was the most fun thing you done during this project?
SU: Oh, man. There were a lot of good times. The humorous scenes are kind of a blast. Trying to get around on crutches was oddly fun. But I think that winner’s circle, the scene we did for that was very touching. It was near the end of filming for all of us and it was a nice way to wrap it up.
JO: You said earlier that you didn’t know much about horse racing going into this project. How much more do you know now?
SU: Probably not much!
JO: Have you become a fan?
SU: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen a lot of things that Chip walked me through that were unique and new and that were uniquely him. I learned a lot. I don’t know that I’ve learned anything about handicapping these races or betting and it’s not really my inclination anyway. I learned how to tell as they run if someone’s coming or if they’re going, but it’s too late by then to bet, so it didn’t really matter.
JO: Have you been to the Kentucky Derby before?
SU: I have not. I hope to get to come this year.
JO: What are you looking forward to when attending your first Kentucky Derby?
SU: Just the grandeur of it--the mass amount of people, the singular focus. Just watching the horses run amidst all of the screaming masses.
JO: Will you go over to the Infield?
SU: I would like to. Most racetracks in my world, in auto racing, have a tunnel you can get there during the race, but I don’t think that’s going to happen here. If you see a guy sprinting across the track, that’s me!
JO: Since Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby in 2009, Chip Woolley has been a regular feature at Churchill Downs during Derby week. Do you think you’ll be joining him this year?
SU: I certainly hope so. I have some things on my schedule I need to iron out, but I would love to be here.
JO: Have you watched any of this year’s Kentucky Derby preps?
SU: I have not. We’ve been stuck on this bus, so we’ve missed it and I was filming something right before I got on the bus and something right before that. So, I’ve missed all the lead-up, but I’ve got plenty of time—we’re done with this on Saturday—to catch up.
JO: So, do you know any horses that are running in this year’s Kentucky Derby?
SU: Not a single one. Tell me who to pick.
At this point, I think we must have changed roles in the interview. I went on to tell Ulrich about Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome and the colt’s interesting backstory. The short of it is that the co-owners, in their first attempt at horse breeding, came up with the colt from a less than stellar pedigree. While the mare was pregnant, co-owner Steve Coburn had a dream of what sex the horse would be and what he’d look like. Once the colt was born, he was just as Coburn had dreamt. He also dreamt the horse went on to win the Kentucky Derby and when he called trainer Art Sherman he told him he was sending him the Kentucky Derby winner.
SU: Oh wow, that’s a deep story. Cool, that might be my scoop there. And what do you think his odds are?
JO: Right now, he’s going in as the favorite.
SU: Really?! That’s a great story.
Q: Have you been able to see any of the sights around Louisville?
SU: When we were here I did a little bit, like the Louisville Slugger Factory. When my brother and sister-in-law, niece and nephew came up, we toured around a little bit. I haven’t done any of the nightlife stuff or barhopping or any of that kind of thing, but I did get to see the Slugger Museum and a little bit more in that area.
JO: And one last question, just for fun. At the Derby Museum they have several different interactive hands-on exhibits. Tell me which of these you’re going to do first: 1) ride the electronic horse racing game; 2) step into the announcer’s booth and call a race; or 3) play with one of the oversized horse racing games in the new temporary exhibit?
SU: I think I’d have to ride the horse. Yeah, hands down. That sounds fun.
Photo: J. Oswald