05/06/2009 11:00PM

Add Borel to list of Derby daredevils

Barbara D. Livingston
Calvin Borel and Mine That Bird shouldn't expect a rail trip at Pimlico.

The Derby result has had a week now to sink in, and still there are handicappers and historians wrestling with the reality of Sunland Park as the place to prep a classic winner. It has been comforting, therefore, to temporarily suspend belief in all things held dear and true, and focus instead on Calvin Borel's ride aboard Mine That Bird, hereafter to be referred to as The Ride.

There are many ways to define the courage displayed by Borel in threading those two needles along the rail. The first he did under the cover of darkness and mud, far back in the pack on the final turn, and to no one's surprise other than Stewart Elliott's, who was aboard West Side Bernie and already thought he was pretty close to the rail. The second, when Borel blew the doors off Join in the Dance and Chris DeCarlo, was in front of the stands and more readily apparent, since the next thing Mine That Bird did was go on to win the Derby by nearly seven lengths.

Just riding those crazy Thoroughbreds takes courage, so it is a stretch to suggest that Borel had to be any more or less brave than the other 18 riders involved in the 135th Derby. Anyway, courage is one of those slippery commodities, hard to define but easy to identify.

Hemingway boiled courage down to "grace under pressure." Always hard to argue with Ernie. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century philosopher, obviously was referring to Borel's similarly exciting ride on Street Sense to win the 2007 Derby when he wrote, "A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before." I also like the spin offered by hipster Ambrose Redmoon, who suggested, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear." Note that the winning purse was $1.4 million. But let's give John Wayne the last say:

"Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway."

There is also the liberating feeling of a hopeless situation. Mine That Bird was 50-1, which, according to three-time Derby winner and NBC analyst Gary Stevens, afforded Borel a subtle advantage.

"It's not so ballsy riding a longshot like that, just trying to pick up a piece of it," Stevens said. "But you have to remember that he rode the identical race with Street Sense, who was favorite. The fact that he did it again makes me respect his ride two years ago even more."

Borel's work aboard Mine That Bird joins a litany of memorable Derby rides. Ask any dedicated fan, and they will usually draw from a collection that includes Don Brumfield's calculated dash to the rail from the outside post aboard Kauai King in 1966, or Jerry Bailey's serpentine tour of the course to get Grindstone up by a nose over Cavonnier in 1996, or Mike Smith's miracle with Giacomo in 2005, which required a lateral move in the lane that made the half-length difference at the wire.

But is there ever a bad winning Derby ride? Babe Hanford had to be pretty ballsy to cool it with 20-1 Bold Venture through the first part of the 1936 Derby, then gun the colt to the lead at the half and end up winning by a head. Or how about Bill Hartack, in only his second collaboration with Northern Dancer, keeping one eye on Bill Shoemaker and favored Hill Rise, and beating Shoe to the punch at every key moment. The winning margin was a neck.

"Shoemaker's tactical ride on Ferdinand was exceptional," Stevens said, harking back to the 1986 Derby. "I had a bird's-eye view, too, because I was on Wheatly Hall. We were both going for the same hole, at about the three-sixteenths, and Shoe's big bastard knocked me out of the way, otherwise I might have had my first Derby winner that day."

The Derby is a race replete with might-have-beens. Bobby Ussery, a Hall of Famer like Stevens, should have three Derbies to his credit but had to settle for just the one, in 1967, with 30-1 Proud Clarion over heavily favored Damascus. The following year, Ussery was aboard victorious Dancer's Image, but the colt failed a drug test, according to Kentucky authorities, and was later stripped of the honor. Then, in the 100th running of the Derby in 1974, Ussery found himself with nowhere to run on an eager Little Current in a field of 23.

"I know he was the best horse in that race," Ussery said. "I couldn't get him to the fence, and I have to admit, under those circumstances I just couldn't ride a good race. Finally, after getting banged around for a mile, I pulled him out in the middle of the racetrack, but the race was over.

"On Dancer's Image, I did get through on the rail, just about the five-sixteenths pole, which made the difference," Ussery added. "I didn't get away with that in the Preakness, though. I tried to get through inside and got shut off. I'm lucky I didn't go down."

Which brings us to Baltimore, where Mine That Bird will try to win the second leg of the Triple Crown next Saturday. If Borel tries to skim the rail again, they'll be waiting.

"If he is a horse who's most comfortable running on the fence, and he might be, then he could possibly be in trouble," Stevens said. "But if he doesn't need the inside, and produces that same kind of run . . . let's just say this: He got my attention."