Why Calvin Borel matters
June 3, 2009
During this 30-year drought without a Triple Crown winner, maybe we just need a good story. Last year it looked like we might have one with Big Brown and Lafayette native Kent Desormeaux, but the third jewel went to Da’ Tara. When Calvin Borel won the Kentucky Derby for the first time riding Street Sense the year before, I knew as much about him as I did about horse racing — squat. All I knew about the race came from a dispatch banged out in 1970 by Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”
But what interested me about the 2007 Kentucky Derby was Calvin Borel. Here was a man who was moved to tears on live national television as he thanked his brother and his parents and who said that it was “the most greatest moment” in his life. It was apparent he didn’t have a lick of book learning, but it was also obvious he had a truckload of horse sense. And it was refreshing to see a real live unscripted human being on television who wasn’t delivering some carefully orchestrated responses. This guy was living by the seat of his pants.
The people I talked to who knew Borel best, mainly his brother and mentor Cecil and his agent, Jerry Hissam, said Calvin was just another jockey, but he had an impeccable work ethic. He was a country boy straight out of Catahoula who knew how to do one thing really well — ride horses. Hissam said, “He wants his eyes right between those two ears of that horse, of all horses. That’s what he’s focusing on.” His brother Cecil said, “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.”
When I spoke with him on the phone, Calvin was affable, despite having talked with dozens of reporters before me and probably answering the same questions repeatedly. He answered every one of my questions with either “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.” I wanted to tell him that there was no reason to call me “sir,” but I knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was as much a part of his DNA as those horses were.
When the Kentucky Derby came back around this year, I tuned in to watch with mild interest, not even knowing if Borel was racing. Sitting around the TV with my family, I saw the 50-to-1 odds of Mine That Bird, and in my mind I simply wrote them off. When the pack rounded the final turn, I couldn’t tell which horse was darting ahead. When I pointed him out, my wife yelled, “That’s Calvin!” Then the whole family started yelling.
Borel’s victory on Mine That Bird was the second biggest upset at the Kentucky Derby, second only to the 1913 upset by Donerail, who ran with odds of 91:1. And if Borel’s story wasn’t incredible enough two years ago, this time around it was nearly unbelievable. The horse had cost only $9,500 and had trailed in the pack before shooting ahead to the finish line much like Street Sense had, hugging tightly to the rail. Borel is the first rider to pass on a Kentucky Derby winner to ride another horse in the Preakness, and he’s the only jockey to win the first two-thirds of the Triple Crown’s jewels on different horses. He’s only the second rider to have won the Kentucky Oaks, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. But Borel has one more chance to pull off a feat that no other jockey has ever managed. If he wins the Belmont, he will be the first jockey to win the Triple Crown on different horses.
When it was made public that Borel wasn’t going to ride Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes, one sports writer claimed that Borel had sold out the entire sport of horse racing and screwed the entire universe by switching horses. I thought How can you possible point any finger at Borel? Imagine that you’ve just pulled off a crowning achievement — for the second time — and you’re faced with the opportunity to either ride that same horse again or ride the one you know in your heart is the fastest horse you’ve ever ridden. What would you do? Would you stick with the familiar horse for a second time around? Or would you do what your heart and your gut compelled you to do, knowing the opportunity may never come again?
Jerry Hissam contends that there never was any question over whether Borel would ride Rachel Alexandra. He told ESPN Borel agreed to ride Mine That Bird for trainer Chip Woolley Jr. in the Kentucky Derby, with the stipulation that if the chance to ride Rachel Alexandra came up, he would take it. “I hope that we’ve prided ourselves on class or on doing the right thing,” Hissam said.
Woolley doesn’t seem to have lost any sleep over the switch or the waiting game leading up to the Belmont Stakes. While Borel was waiting last week for Rachel Alexandra’s owner to make a decision, Woolley told Louisville’s Courier-Journal, “Out of respect for Calvin, we’re going to give them a little bit more time to make their decision what they’re going to do. … I mean, he won me a Derby.”
Respect. There it is. Maybe it’s that infectious mutual respect that Borel exudes and infuses in others that makes this story even more compelling this time around. Maybe that’s why everywhere you turn as of late it’s been Calvin, Calvin, Calvin. Maybe people really don’t mind you switching horses, as long as you aren’t in midstream. And maybe a little bit of respect goes much further than we ever dreamed.
If Borel doesn’t win the Belmont Stakes on Mine That Bird this Saturday (Rachel’s gonna sit this one out), I don’t think it’s going to crush him. He doesn’t seem to be wired that way. I think his mind will be on the next race, that next horse. He’s not thinking about the purse or the pundits. He’s just looking for the best ride.
But wouldn’t it be great to watch him cross that finish line first on Saturday?
Maybe the good guy doesn’t always finish last.