The newspapers and sports announcers refer to him by name — Calvin Borel. The jockeys call him “Bo-Rail,” for his preference of riding the rail when he races horses. But his family has a hard time calling him anything but what they’ve called him all of his life — “Boo-Boo.” His older brother Cecil says, “Sometimes I got to think twice when they tell me Calvin. He’s always been Boo-Boo. They just call him that Calvin stuff up here in Kentucky because they don’t know no better. His name really and truly is Boo-Boo.”
The rest of the world didn’t know too much about Boo-Boo, until he won the Kentucky Derby on a horse with a slingshot reflex called Street Sense. Then came the media barrage, followed by the state dinner at the White House with President George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, and Peyton Manning. Throughout it all, Calvin stuck to his routine of the last 25 years, working his horses, only answering reporters’ questions on his days off. (He answers every question with “sir.”)
In a phone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky., four days before the Preakness Stakes, the 40-year-old, 110-pound, 5-foot-4 jockey from Catahoula remembers the first time he rode Street Sense. “I worked him the first quarter of a mile,” he says. “‘Man,’ I said. ‘Lord, have mercy. What kind of horse is this?’ You get on a bunch of them, and something always happens, but he just kept going and going — half of a mile, five-eighths, three-quarters, and boy, he was just getting better and better. So we run him. We schooled him good, like Carl [Nafzger] likes to do with his horses, show him the right way, because we knew he was a good horse. He run second that day, and we were very pleased. Then the next start, he won. So he wasn’t fooling us. He was the real deal.”
And if anyone would know, it would be Calvin; over his career, he has won some 4,300 races. Before the Kentucky Derby, he rode Street Sense in seven races, winning three of them, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in November. Street Sense was the first winner of that race ever to win the Kentucky Derby.
This past Saturday, all eyes were on Calvin and Street Sense. They were the favorite at the Preakness Stakes, trailed only by Hard Spun and Curlin, the respective second and third horses of the Derby. Calvin and Street Sense started as they had in the Kentucky Derby, holding back for much of the race and waiting for an opening. But this time, despite a strong stretch run, the pair couldn’t find the spot along the rail to catapult them to victory. Lafayette native Robby Albarado and Curlin inched out Street Sense by only a head at the finish line.
So this year, there’s no Triple Crown. But Calvin’s tenacity and his dedication to his life’s work earned him a Kentucky Derby victory for the ages.
Long before the Triple Crown was even a possibility, Calvin and trainer Carl Nafzger were just looking for a horse strong enough for the Derby. Calvin says, “One day he had this 2-year-old walking around, and he told me, he said, ‘This might be our Derby horse.’ And sure as shit, there he was. Yes, sir.”
The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville is the first leg of the Triple Crown in thoroughbred horse racing. The second and third races are the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y. Only 11 horses have ever garnered the honor. And there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978, when Affirmed won the Belmont Stakes. The 29-year drought is the longest in 125 years of American horse racing.
At the Kentucky Derby this year, Queen Elizabeth II wore white gloves and watched from the stands. Curlin was the favorite to win and was unbeaten. Calvin and Street Sense ran next to last in the 20-horse race through the halfway mark. For fans watching on television, Street Sense didn’t even find his way into the frame until a half a mile from the finish. In the final sixteenth of a mile, Calvin and Street Sense made a dramatic move off the inside rail to blow past the leader Hard Spun. Calvin only looked back once, just before crossing the finish line and throwing a quick celebratory jab into the air, winning by 2 1/4 lengths.
“In between the three-eighths pole and the quarter pole, when I hadn’t moved on him yet, I was pretty comfortable there,” Calvin says. “The horses were starting to stop in front of me. I had a feeling there that I had a lot of horse under me. It would have took a good horse to keep going and a good horse to run him down if he was going to fire like I knew he could. So when I turned for home at the quarter pole, I knew for sure I was home free.”
In another phone interview before the Preakness, Calvin’s older brother Cecil explained the chemistry between his younger brother and Street Sense. “He always thought that horse could run,” Cecil says. “Sometimes you get a special one, and he’s just a special horse. [Calvin] gets along good with him. He gets him to relax and to race real good. That has a lot to do with it. The horse is real good, but you also have to have somebody on him that takes their time and is patient, especially when you’re going this far. You’ve got to be awfully patient.”
“He does whatever I want him to do,” Calvin adds. “If the pace is fast, he lays a little back; if it’s slow, he’s a little forward. But he’s his own self. When I want him, he’s always there. He puts me through holes that’s unbelievable. If something comes up in front of me and I need to be there, I just tighten up my reins a little bit and he puts me there right quick. People worried about him coming from so far back with a lot of horses, but that never crossed my mind. He’s the type of horse, you can use him more than one time. You can use him six, seven times if you want, and he’ll still finish.”
NBC announcer Tom Durkin proclaimed as they crossed the finish line at the Kentucky Derby: “Here is Street Sense, a stretch-running sensation!” By the time NBC’s reporter caught up with him, Calvin had tears in his eyes. The interview by horseback was interrupted frequently by jockeys riding past Calvin congratulating him, and Calvin responded to each and every one. “I just want to thank my brother who got me here,” he said. “I wish my mama and daddy was here. This is the most greatest moment of my life.”
Calvin and his fiancée Lisa Funk were later invited by President Bush to a White House dinner with Queen Elizabeth II. The president hugged him. The queen shook his hand. And as he told one television reporter, he even sat “against” fellow Louisianian and Super Bowl quarterback Peyton Manning at the dinner table.
“It was a shuffle, I tell you what,” Calvin says. “Peyton Manning was all right. I liked him. He talked to me a lot. It was an honor to meet the queen, something that people don’t ever get to do. That was a big milestone for me and my fiancée to do. And the president, he made us feel at home. It was unbelievable. It was amazing.”
With the newfound media attention after the derby, Jerry Hissam, Calvin’s agent for the last 17 years, scheduled interviews for him on his days off so his established work routine wouldn’t be interrupted. “He wants to focus on his job and his horses,” Hissam says. “He wants his eyes right between those two ears of that horse, of all horses. That’s what he’s focusing on.”
“We grew up in Catahoula,” says Cecil. “Everybody says St. Martinville, but we lived in Catahoula all our life.” Cecil now lives in Shreveport, but he spends most of his time away from home training horses. “A lot of people don’t understand that when you’re with the horses, you move all the time,” he says. “You ain’t got no choice. If you don’t, you don’t go nowhere.”
Calvin is the youngest of five boys born to Clovis and Ella Borel — Clifton, Clovis, Cal, Cecil and Calvin. There’s a 13-year age difference between Calvin and Cecil.
Their parents farmed sugar cane, and Calvin describes them as “the most greatest parents in the world. We had food on the table and clothes to wear. They were hard-working people. It was kind of hard Derby day — my dad died about three years ago — not for him to see me to win the race, but I knew he was watching me from upstairs. My mom’s disabled, but she was lucky to see me.” His father passed away at the age of 88, and his 84-year-old mother lives in a St. Martinville nursing home. Calvin made sure that one of his nephews was with her during the Kentucky Derby to see him race on television.
“He was born on a horse,” Cecil recalls of his younger brother. “At 3 and 4 years old he was already riding in the pasture. At 8 years old he was riding match races. He was born to be a rider. He could just walk, and he wanted to ride.”
“He wanted to ride so bad and fool with the horses,” Cecil adds. “He was hard-headed, but he wouldn’t get in no trouble. He was a very, very active kid. Him and my baby girl used to get in trouble all the time. They’d go pick on mama’s chickens and break the eggs and stuff like that.”
At the age of 8, Calvin started racing horses, and during the summer he lived with Cecil who raced horses at Delta Downs in Vinton and Evangeline Downs in Carencro. By the time he was 12, Calvin was living with Cecil full-time. He dropped out of school after the 8th grade, but he didn’t stop working.
“I just taught him how to work,” Cecil says. “He learned how to work until it paid off. The boy worked hard. He was small, but by the time he reached 10 he could almost do a man’s job, as far as horse-wise. At 10 years old, he knew what some people at 20 or 30 years old didn’t know about a horse.”
Calvin credits his older brother with his education on and off the track. “He’s taught me everything I know — pace and training, how to feel a horse. I can train a horse. I know everything about a horse. He played a big influence in my life with that. He taught me about saving ground and give a hundred ten percent when you go out there, no matter if you’re on a $2,500 horse or a million dollar race. If you’re going to ride him, go out there and ride to win. That’s the main thing.”
Calvin cut his teeth riding the bush tracks across Acadiana — in Carencro, Henderson, Breaux Bridge and Abbeville. By the time he was 16, he ran his first professional race and had eight years of experience already under his belt.
“In Louisiana people are raised by it so much,” Calvin says. “When you come up from Louisiana to be a jockey, you start from the bottom. You start from walking them, grooming them, way at the bottom. You just don’t wake up one morning and start riding horses and then do good when you have the bug and then they forget about you. When you come from Louisiana, you got to work your way up. It makes you a strong person, I think, if you do it that way.”
Hissam describes Calvin’s work ethic as “impeccable” and says he’s never met anyone who works as hard. Calvin’s up before the sun and working with the horses before daybreak. “He’s got one at 5, 6, 7 in the morning; rides until 7, 8, 9 in the afternoons, and never once cries in his beer. Never once. We’ve been together 17 years, and we haven’t had two cross words, and you know I messed up somewhere.”
After the Kentucky Derby win, Calvin maintained his daily schedule, despite the overwhelming media attention. “It’s still the same routine,” he says. “You’re always trying to look for another one.” In a short NBC segment before the race on Saturday, Nafzger said, “If Calvin ever changes, I’ll lose all faith in humanity.”
After his win at the Kentucky Derby, when the talk of the Triple Crown was reaching a fevered pitch and Street Sense looked poised to be the horse to finally break the dry spell, Calvin didn’t buy into any of the chatter. After 25 years of professional racing and a lifetime with horses, he was only betting on one thing: There was still work to be done.
“We’ve got to take it day by day,” he says. “Like Mr. Carl told me, ‘We’re just going to go in there and do our thing.’ If he gets there, he does; if he doesn’t, he doesn’t.”
NBC showed Nafzger and Calvin commiserating shortly after they lost the Preakness on Saturday. They’d just been outran, they said. A commentator interrupted them and asked Calvin, whose face was caked with mud, what had gone wrong. Calvin spoke directly and plainly. “I had a good trip,” he said. “No excuses. None whatsoever.”