Kentucky Derby Hopefuls Keeping Close Eye on Jockey Calvin Borel
Here he comes again: Jockey Calvin Borel is soaring into the Kentucky Derby, accelerating in this remarkable ride that even Borel admits has taken his career "from the out-house to the White House" in three improbable years.
"I'd won thousands of races and never got on the map," Borel said. "Then I won a Derby. And then another. It's just one race, but it's made my life crazy. You couldn't imagine."
Calvin Borel's huge, earnest, tearful smile has become a face of inspiration for Kentucky Derby 136. His sneak-through-on-the-rail, come-from-behind victories aboard Street Sense in 2007 and Mine That Bird last year have stirred a powerful mixture of legitimate awe, raw disbelief and thunderous appreciation.
"Calvin's easy to root for," jockey Garrett Gomez said. "You admire his humbleness and old-school attitude toward hard work."
"Using Calvin in the Derby is like riding that hot hand in a basketball game - you just want to keep giving him the ball because he's had incredible success at Churchill Downs," Elliott Walden said. Walden is vice president and racing manager for WinStar Farm, which will use Borel on its Kentucky Derby colt, Super Saver.
Trainers will joke that when they lift their jockeys aboard their Derby mounts Saturday, they'll deliver reminders to peek toward the rail for Borel and Super Saver just in case Calvin tries his signature move one more time while trying to become only the ninth rider to win the Kentucky Derby at least three times.
Are they only kidding? A little. It's tricky for any jockey to ride in a packed Derby field while obsessing about the tactics of another rider. But who can risk getting outmaneuvered by Borel - again?
It's been nearly three decades since Borel's older brother, Cecil, a trainer, taught him that the shortest distance around the track was traveled by keeping your horse as close to the inside rails as possible on turns.
"In a race as long as the Derby, you can easily save a couple of lengths," Calvin Borel said.
The math is simple. The execution is not. Not when you are surrounded by a swarm of horses and competitive jockeys. But Bo-rail to the rail has become a cold-sweat moment for opposing trainers.
"I've seen other jockeys try to emulate Calvin coming up the fence, and they fall short," trainer Nick Zito said. "It's a God-given gift he's got. At this track, he's always a threat. Always."
"He's got my attention," said Bob Baffert, who trains Lookin At Lucky, the likely Derby favorite. "He makes things happen. He's fearless.
Comments like those are more likely to make Borel blush than play Mr. Big Shot, the way Borel blushed when he appeared on television with both Jay Leno and David Letterman last spring. He isn't a chest-pounder. His riding statistics take care of that.
Five years ago Borel ranked 73rd nationally on the jockey earnings list. His mounts made about $3.56 million. Jockeys generally are paid 7 percent to 8 percent of that total, although they must pay their agents and valets in the jockeys' room. Last year, when Borel rode both Mine That Bird and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, he ranked 15th, with more than $9.24 million. He is maintaining a similar pace this year - 16th nationally with mounts that have earned more than $2.23 million.
Borel's world started changing three years ago. He rode his first Derby in 1993. Finished 17th. Borel was establishing himself as a Churchill Downs regular - except on Derby Day. He had to wait seven years for his second Derby mount.
When he climbed on Street Sense in 2007, Borel was 40. He had ridden the Derby four times and never moved his Derby horse closer than eighth at any point in the stretch.
Then he won the race, knifing past 18 horses in the final three-quarters of a mile. That victory inspired a trip to the White House, where he was introduced to then-President George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth II.
Impressive ride? Absolutely. But Street Sense was a marvelous horse, the Derby favorite. It was a triumph of the horse and trainer Carl Nafzger, as well as Borel.
Last year was different. Borel gave Mine That Bird a ride people are still talking about this year. Some marvel at his poise, others mention his persistence. But everybody is starting to believe Borel sees openings other jockeys do not see.
Borel and Mine That Bird trailed 18 horses after a quarter-mile. Same thing after a half-mile. Ditto after three-quarters of a mile. No chance. No serious mention from NBC race-caller Tom Durkin.
Then Borel made something happen that isn't supposed to happen in the Derby. Mine That Bird passed seven horses in the next quarter-mile. Making his way to the rail, Borel started passing more.
More. And more. Everybody, in fact, including Baffert's colt, Pioneerof the Nile, who looked like a probable winner.
"Everybody's cheering because it looks like we're going to get it," Baffert said. "And then somebody says, 'Who's that coming on the inside?'"
Who else? Calvin Borel.
Just the way they fear he'll be coming at them this Saturday.