01/31/2013 3:39PM

Borden cool under pressure as Kentucky's acting chief steward

Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Longtime racing official Barbara Borden has been the acting chief steward in Kentucky since last April.

FLORENCE, Ky. – Controversy has made the seat of chief steward on the Kentucky racing circuit an occasional hot one. Among the prominent cases, there was the Dancer’s Image medication disqualification from the 1968 Kentucky Derby, the sponges-up-the-nose fiasco in 1996, the Jose Santos Q-ring debacle of 2003, and the Life At Ten embarrassment from 2010.

Those might have even been easy, since there are more daunting scenarios that might shift the spotlight onto the Kentucky chief steward in the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby: an inquiry into the running of the race that could go either way; another medication positive in this age of high-tech drug science and legal maneuvering; or, God forbid, a multi-horse spill in front of a horrified public.

Barbara Borden is well aware. These days, 10 months into her tenure as acting chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Borden is whiling away her time in the relative obscurity of Turfway Park in northern Kentucky. In just a couple of months, racing will return to higher visibility at Keeneland in Lexington and then, in late April, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where on May 4 the Derby will be run for the 139th time.

Borden, 53, has been doing “mental pushups” in preparing for the day when her decades of experience in racing may be called upon to render judgments in such critical situations.

“The one thing is to try to keep a level head,” Borden said in a recent interview at Turfway. “It sounds trite, but there’s racing here year round, and things happen all the time. The Derby is another race, although obviously there’s a lot going on and millions of people are watching. You just hope you could exercise the same judgment that you would for any race on any given day. Stay calm and look at it like it’s happening on a regular Thursday.”

Borden was hired in the aftermath of the highly charged firing of John Veitch, which occurred shortly after the Churchill fall meet ended in November 2011. For the ensuing four months at Turfway, Rick Williams served as interim chief steward. Borden was hired April 1, 2012, initially with the title of state steward, which shortly was changed to acting chief steward.

The timetable for removing the “acting” label from her title “has yet to be determined,” said Marc Guilfoil, who oversaw the hiring process as deputy executive director for the racing commission. He explained that ultimately it will be a decision by Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, acting on the recommendations of personnel within the governmental hierarchy.

Borden grew up in Mentor, Ohio, in the northeast suburbs of Cleveland close to Lake Erie. She is the third of three children to her father, Don, who turns 82 this week while living in retirement in South Carolina, and her mother, Mary, who died in a car accident in 1978.

The family had pleasure horses but was not involved with Thoroughbreds, although Barbara and her sister, Deb, and brother, Dave, all eventually gravitated to careers in the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Deb, who died in 2001, was a longtime employee of Daily Racing Form, and Dave was a jockey for about 12 years, through 1987, then worked for several years as a jockey agent. Today he is working in private business in Las Vegas and has been married for about 15 years to Alexis Harthill, the daughter of the legendary late veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill.

After graduating high school in 1978, Borden intended to attend college, but she never made it. She took a backstretch job that summer at nearby Thistledown and never left the racetrack, working her way through the ranks at tracks such as Beulah Park, River Downs, and Tampa Bay Downs as a groom, exercise rider, and pony person before taking a job for a brief period at a California ranch in the early 1980s. She then worked for about seven years compiling charts for the Form while also accepting part-time work with the Kentucky commission in various lower-level positions, including a job in the licensing department and as a “sample technician” in the test barn. She eventually was hired as an assistant horse identifier in the fallout from the infamous Briarwood/Blairwood incident on Derby Day 1988 before being promoted in 1995 as the full-time chief identifier.

“When I was younger I wanted to be a concert clarinetist because that’s what my training was in,” said Borden. “It’s funny how life can take you down a different path.”

At the suggestion of her longtime mentor Bernie Hettel, Borden attended the first stewards’ accreditation classes at the University of Louisville in the early 1990s and worked her first meet as a steward at fall meets at tiny Blue Grass Downs in Paducah, Ky., in 1993. She continued to work primarily in horse ID while also serving short stints as a steward at smaller tracks such as Ellis Park and Turfway.

“Barb has a superb background to do the job she’s in now,” said Hettel, who was the chief steward for the Kentucky commission for nearly 20 years, until 2004, and is now executive secretary for the Virginia Racing Commission. “She’s spent a lot of time in the trenches, flipping lips and a lot of other things. Her family has all that background in racing. . . . She’s very well prepared to do the job.”

Her application last year won out over “about 20 to 25” candidates who also sought the job as chief steward, according to Guilfoil.

“Barb figured to be a great fit for us for a number of reasons, ” Guilfoil said this week from the commission offices in Lexington. “She has longevity in Kentucky as an official. She knows all the players, including in track managements; they know her, and she’s respected by all. She worked for us years ago, and she’s very comfortable with her colleagues, as they are with her. I think she’s done an outstanding job so far. She really hit the ground running.”

Borden has lived since 1997 in the same house in an older, quiet Louisville neighborhood just a couple of miles east of Churchill. For about 20 years, she has dated the same man, Gerry O’Brien, an Irish native who trains a small string of horses in northern Kentucky (for races in which O’Brien has a horse, Borden recuses herself). She has no children and is a vegetarian. Although she does not have a lot of time outside of racing, she enjoys snow skiing, traveling, gardening, exercising, and keeping her house in good shape while also rooting (often futilely) for the Cleveland Browns during football season.

She said she inherited “a certain toughness” from her father, who was critically injured while surviving the same crash that killed his wife.

“I’m sure that most of the time people see that side of me,” she said, “although I do crumble every once in a while. I just try not to let anybody see that.”

Borden is the rare woman to occupy such a high position in the racing industry, but she doesn’t seem to have thought much about the topic of gender, being as focused as she is on more important issues.

“I’ve never really heard of a woman being a chief steward, at least not in a racing state as major as Kentucky,” she said. “I’m good friends with Kim Sawyer,” a steward on the Southern California circuit, “and obviously there are women that have done extremely well in other jobs in racing.”

Borden is often described as a good-humored, caring person, an animal lover, and someone who makes optimal use of common sense and her 35 years of experience in racing.

“A lot of the job is watching races and replays carefully, and a whole lot of them, studying various situations that may arise,” Hettel said. “She has all that behind her and does her homework. Honestly, she is just a wonderful woman. I supported her many years ago, and she hasn’t ever disappointed me. She is that good.”

With the roles of stewards being mostly reactive, as opposed to proactive, Borden said she hopes to be like a little-noticed referee who diverts precious little attention away from the action on the playing field.

“I love this job,” she said. “It can be stressful at times, rewarding at times, enjoyable. I really do feel fortunate to be working alongside such competent, experienced officials in the great racing state that this is. Hopefully, I can make a difference when the situation calls for it.”

As for an unfortunate circumstance arising with the Derby or another major event, Borden noted that the 2012 Derby passed without incident with her in the stewards’ stand.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate so far, knock on wood,” she said. “We’ll just have to use our best judgment if something ever comes up.”