Borel makes the most of chances

Jerry Hissam, Calvin Borel’s close friend and longtime agent, was a little exasperated after the Preakness.

Reporters were peppering him with questions about Borel, who had just won the second jewel of the 2009 Triple Crown, and he was trying to come up with a dignified way of saying what was on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Isn’t it about time the racing community figured out that Borel -- even at age 42 -- is one of the best jockeys in the sport?

“Go look at the standings right now at Churchill Downs,” Hissam said in reference to Borel’s home track, playfully thrusting a thick finger in the direction of a reporter for added emphasis. “Even though we’re third in the standings, the basic payoff for horses that Calvin rides is $25.80. What more can I tell you than that? . . . To me, it proves one thing: When you put him on a horse, you’ve got a chance.”

It’s almost hard to believe, as the 141st Belmont Stakes takes place Saturday, that Borel has a shot to win all three Triple Crown races. Less than two months ago, he wasn’t sure he would have a Kentucky Derby mount.

He was hoping to ride Beethoven, a promising 3-year-old, in the Derby but the horse was injured in March. And then the horse he did end up with, Mine That Bird, looked like the longest of long shots at 50-1.


There wasn’t even any official video of Mine That Bird available for Borel to view before he agreed to ride him. All he had to go by was what his fiancee, Lisa Funk, could find on YouTube. It’s a pretty good story of perseverance and patience for a man nicknamed “Boo Boo,” a moniker the youngest of five boys earned because of the 12-year gap between him and his closest sibling. But as Hissam likes to point out, Borel has always been this good. If you’re just realizing it, well, you probably cost yourself a lot of money over the years.

“People are paying attention now because he’s winning the classics,” Hissam said. “But the first year I ever had Calvin, we went to Louisiana and won the Louisiana Super Derby with a horse that paid $58. Two years later, we went to the Arkansas Derby and won with a horse that paid $218. We won the Stephen Foster with a horse that paid almost $200. . . . That just shows that no matter what the horse is, he’s going to try for you.”

Even though he’ll be under pressure to deliver, Borel’s Belmont trip is already shaping up to be less stressful than the buildup to the Preakness. When Rachel Alexandra’s previous owner, Dolphus Morrison, decided to sell the filly after Borel rode her to a remarkable 20 1/4 -length victory in the Kentucky Oaks, the jockey was so nervous about losing the mount, he was near tears the day Churchill Downs paid him $141,720 for winning the Derby.

“He would have given that check back to the racetrack if it meant he could still ride Rachel,” said Funk, who has been with Borel since 2001, when the pair met at Churchill Downs. “Finishing first to him in a race means way more to him than whatever he’s getting paid.”

Borel won’t have an easy trip Saturday at the Belmont. Even though it’s the longest race of the Triple Crown at 1 1/2 miles, a length that would seem to favor Mine That Bird’s charge-from-behind-late running style, Belmont winners have traditionally needed to be within a few lengths of the lead coming into the final turn.

Charitable Man could be Mine That Bird’s biggest threat, especially when you consider that he didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness and he doesn’t have to ship to get to Belmont because it’s his home track. Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Charitable Man, who won the Belmont in 2006 with Jazil, still doesn’t seem sold on Mine That Bird. He told reporters this week that Mine That Bird’s Derby victory taught him he should never pass on running a horse in the Derby.

“In the Derby, all I could think was Calvin Borel gave him a great ride and he loved the slop. But after [seeing Mine That Bird run] in the Preakness, I have a lot more respect. He is a gutsy little horse that tries hard,” McLaughlin said.

After working a half-mile with Mine That Bird on Monday, Borel seemed almost energized at having the controversy behind him. He even said Mine That Bird is going to win. “We just got to get lucky,” he said. “Me and the horse fit good.”

Trainer Chip Woolley Jr. thinks Mine That Bird looks even better this week than he has all season, especially now that he has Borel back.

“He’s really into it. Calvin got the work I wanted out of him this morning,” Wooley said. “They just looked like they were bread and butter.”