No one’s railing at Borel over swap
Calvin Borel is a hick from Louisiana, and we mean that in the kindest way. He comes from Catahoula Parish, population 10,000, and even if he doesn’t live there now, he never really left.
He is 116 pounds of bouncy energy. He smiles through the good days and the bad. Also through gaps where teeth used to be.
Borel doesn’t just answer questions. He “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs.” His grammar is faulty, his work skills are not. He would be perfect to sit with in a boat for four hours and fish with a bobber. It is hard to call him by his last name.
Life is complicated and Calvin Borel is not.
He rides expensive, temperamental and dangerous thoroughbred horses. They usually weigh about 1,000 pounds and run at a top speed of about 35 mph. Borel, better than anybody, squeezes them through tiny holes where others never go. He is as fearless as he is friendly.
There are several dozen story lines in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, and Borel’s tops them all.
He won this year’s Kentucky Derby on a horse that attracted less pre-race attention than hot walkers for the favorites. At odds of 50-1, Borel weaved through the big-name, big-price horses in the homestretch to get to the wire first in the biggest horse race in the world. His finish included his signature move of taking his horse inside to the rail. Thus the nickname, Calvin Bo-rail.
His 6 3/4 -length victory was the largest by any horse since Assault won by eight in 1946. Assault won the Triple Crown that year, one of only 11 who have done so.
Borel’s trip was aboard a strangely named horse, Mine That Bird (explanation: his daddy was Birdstone and his momma Mining My Own). When it was over, the race left millions of bettors with mouths agape and losing tickets in hand. Borel’s dash from last to first will soon be digitized and converted to a thrill ride at Magic Mountain.
The usual Preakness story is about whether the Derby winner can add the second leg to a quest for the Triple Crown, something not achieved since 1978. But there is nothing usual about this Preakness, mostly because of Borel.
Mine That Bird will race. Borel will ride another horse, the favored filly, Rachel Alexandra.
But the real shocker is that nobody is mad at Borel.
This is horse racing, where being angry is the oxygen of the sport. It is a sport defined by getting an edge, knowing somebody who has an edge, or being furious when you can achieve neither.
Into that framework came Borel’s decision to jump off his Kentucky Derby winner and onto his Kentucky Oaks winner. Nobody had done that in a Preakness, when the Derby winner was still around to race. That sort of thing is usually worth hours of TV sound bites, with quotes from both sides, snarling at the other.
Not with Borel involved.
“Calvin has no enemies,” says Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, now a TV analyst. “I rode against him for 20 years, and he’s a legend.”
Bennie (Chip) Woolley Jr., Mine That Bird’s trainer, says, “From day one, when there was the possibility the filly would run in the Preakness, Calvin was straight with us. He told us what he’d do, and he did it. There are no hard feelings.”
Trainer Bob Baffert jokingly has some, and loves to tell the story.
“On Derby Day, my wife, Jill, bet the early Pick Three and had it pretty much locked in,” Baffert says. “In the first race, one of our fillies, Mother Ruth, should win and is in good shape until some guy gets by on the rail. It’s Calvin.
“So she says to me that that has happened to her before with this guy and he’s starting to tick her off. And she says that we better watch him in the Derby, so he doesn’t do the same thing to our horse.
“I laugh and tell her not to worry, that he is riding a 100-1 shot or something, and that’s not going to happen.”
Flash forward to the Derby, with Baffert’s Pioneerof The Nile powering into the lead on the homestretch and looking good. A TV crew has followed Baffert and is taping, as Borel zips to the rail and rockets past everybody else, like one of those Stealth bombers, arriving out of nowhere. “The guys back in the TV truck had a great old time listening to me,” Baffert says. “I forgot the camera was there. I forgot everything. None of what they got was usable, of course.”
There are no Calvin Borel movies around the corner, no books. His ride on Mine That Bird was not even that much of a novelty for him. He did the same thing to win the Derby on Street Sense in 2007, and after that one, the media reconstructed his ride as if they were John Madden, drawing up the perfect buttonhook.
Stevens even thinks Borel’s best Derby ride may have been last year, when he threaded the needle down the stretch with Denis of Cork and got third place.
None of this prompts changes in Borel.
Borel won’t arrive in Baltimore until late Friday because he had rides at Churchill Downs. All the press is here, but his rides are in Louisville. In the immediate aftermath of the Derby, there was opportunity for dozens of additional interviews and microphone yakking, but Borel, instead, rode the next race.
He has had the same agent for 19 years, Jerry Hissam. He is about 250 wins shy of 5,000. At the moment, he is not in the Hall of Fame. Just famous.
All eyes will be on him when Rachel Alexandra is loaded into the 13th, and outside, gate late Saturday afternoon. The filly’s connections, thrilled to have Borel in the saddle, have only one worry.
“We just hope Calvin doesn’t get confused,” says assistant trainer Scott Blasi, “and go to the outside rail.”