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For Borel, it's always about the horses
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Calvin Borel never wanted anything more than to ride racehorses. Not play with the other kids. Not take up a sport. Not even go to school. Not nuthin', as Borel himself might say in his south-central Louisiana twang.
For Borel, a lifetime of single-minded focus has paid off beyond his fondest dreams. After having become a millionaire, he is now poised to reach the pinnacle of the racing world as the jockey for Street Sense, one of the favorites for the 133rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Borel, 40, grew up in St. Martinville in the heart of Louisiana's bayou country, where the main exports are sugar cane, crawfish, hot sauce, zydeco music, and jockeys. Not only is Borel the youngest of five boys born to Clovis and Ella Borel, but he is 12 years younger than the second-youngest brother, Cecil, 52.
"That's how I got the nickname 'Boo,' " Borel said in a recent interview on the Churchill backstretch. "I was a boo-boo."
Boo's mere existence might have been a mistake, but his development into a highly successful jockey certainly wasn't. By age 8, Borel was riding in match races at the unsanctioned bush tracks of his home region, and by the time he got a jockey's license at 16 in 1983, he already had plenty of experience and polish. Growing up on a 40-acre farm that his dad used primarily to raise Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, Borel has had his entire life revolve around training and racing horses.
When he first started riding at Evangeline Downs, the small Lafayette, La., track where racing is conducted at night, Borel would finish around midnight, catch a little shuteye, then get up at 3 a.m. to start a brand new cycle. To this day, Borel still works six days a week, taking only Mondays off, rising in time to work horses or muck stalls at Cecil Borel's stable, by 6 a.m. or earlier, regardless of whether it's a race day or not.
"Calvin's the hardest-working jockey on the racetrack, no doubt about it," said Bob Holthus, who has trained horses since 1952 and long has traveled the same circuit as Borel, primarily Kentucky and Arkansas.
Borel's tireless work ethic has led to more than 4,300 races won and mount earnings of more than $83.8 million. With roughly 10 percent of those earnings going to Borel himself, he is wealthy today. But when he says "It's not about the money," it rings true. His silver truck is a 2000 model with more than 130,000 miles on it, and he has "absolutely no" extravagant spending habits, according to his longtime agent, Jerry Hissam.
"I love horses, and I love being around horses," said Borel. But above all, he said, "I love winning. That's what I'm in it for, winning."
This narrow focus has come at the expense of other aspects of his life. He said his hobbies are "a little hunting and fishing," but he escapes to them only during select periods of a year, typically from late November to early January, or when he is sidelined by injury. He had no children with his former wife, Roxanne, and Borel said he and his fiancee, Lisa, currently do not plan to have children. And he blew off school so much when he was young that he still has difficulty reading the most elementary passages, and while Borel is reluctant to go into detail, people close to him say he struggles with illiteracy.
"I remember the principal of the school coming right to the house many, many times to get Calvin to come to school," said Shane Borel, a nephew who has worked for years as a valet and exercise rider at tracks in Kentucky and elsewhere. "He just didn't want to go."
Calvin Borel said his fiancee "helps me a lot" and has made numerous attempts to help improve his reading, but Shane Borel said Calvin becomes frustrated.
"He'll say, 'I'm too old, I haven't been able to do this my whole life, and it hasn't mattered yet,' " Shane said.
Borel said he stopped going to school altogether when he was 12, after he broke his leg in a riding accident.
"He just helped out working on the farm all day, rode horses," said Shane Borel, whose father, Carroll, a former trainer, is one of Calvin's older brothers.
Millions of people would trade their educations and subsequent financial struggles for what Borel has accomplished.
"We don't have much education, and we're not proud of it," said Cecil Borel. "But we are proud of what we've done." Indeed, for the sole purpose of getting a horse to the wire first, owners and trainers couldn't care a whit if Borel can't spell C-A-T.
"That kind of stuff doesn't matter at all," said Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense. "There've been a lot of great people in life . . . if you go by education, I ought to quit training horses. I only got out of high school, and a lot of these other trainers have college degrees."
Borel, who has ridden graded stakes winners such as My Boston Gal and Lead Story for Nafzger, long has believed that Street Sense was a potential superstar. Last summer, when Borel could have had the mount on a horse who ended up winning a $50,000 stakes race at Ellis Park, he and Hissam chose to remain with Street Sense for the colt's second career start, an Aug. 19 maiden race at Arlington Park. Street Sense won, and nobody but Borel has ever ridden the colt in any of his seven races.
Although Borel has been a perennial leading rider wherever he has been - Louisiana Downs and Oaklawn before he switched to a Kentucky-Oaklawn circuit in 1994 - he frequently would be replaced by Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, or other big-name riders when his mounts showed they were ready for bigger races.
"That's a part of the game everybody deals with," said Hissam.
But with Day, Bailey, Gary Stevens, and so many other Hall of Fame jockeys having retired in recent years, Borel is among the new rotation of veterans hoping to supplant them in crucial situations. Nafzger said he and Jim Tafel, the owner-breeder of Street Sense, have never wavered in their loyalty to Borel.
"We've had a long-range game plan with this colt all along, and I always thought Calvin fit the bill," said Nafzger. "He's a horseman - and a horseman's jock. He understands horses, and he rides a good race.
"Last year we thought this horse really needed some pat hands on him, somebody that'd let him take his time. We wanted to let the horse win his races, not the rider be all over him making him do things. Calvin is just perfect for this horse, we thought."
Borel's annual mount earnings have surpassed $5 million in eight of the past 10 years, so he clearly has proven himself as an excellent rider over time, and yet he is not nearly as well known nationally as other jockeys with similar statistics. That may be partly because he seldom rides in major racing centers such as New York, California, or Florida, but also because a life story that deals primarily with plain hard work is sorely lacking in glitz and glamour.
Borel and his brother make no apologies for this.
"Those other boys are from someplace else," said Cecil Borel, who travels a circuit of Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and currently has a string of 10 horses at the Trackside training center, just a few miles from Churchill Downs, and another five at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La. "I don't really know why Calvin's never gotten the kind of publicity they have. I guess it's because we're coon-asses, country boys. That's the only way I know how to put it."
Partly because of their age difference and life circumstances, it was Cecil Borel, and not their father, who took Calvin under his wing and taught him about horses and riding. Clovis Borel died "about five or six years ago," said Cecil Borel. Their mother, now 84, suffered a stroke and heart attack several years ago and is paralyzed on her right side.
"We were raised to work," said Cecil Borel. "Calvin worked, I worked, the whole family worked. I guess I semi-raised Calvin since he was 7 or 8. He's been tough ever since."
Cecil and Calvin have been close their entire lives, and to this day, that closeness remains apparent. In fact, after Cecil gave Calvin a leg up on a gray gelding named Alpha Capo for a $50,000 claiming race Saturday on the Churchill turf, and the horse won, they greeted each other with a joyful high-five upon reuniting at the entrance to the winner's circle.
Borel ranks sixth in career wins among jockeys at Churchill and is quite familiar with the everyday winner's circle. But in the once-a-year case of the Kentucky Derby, an infield winner's circle is used, and Borel has never gotten close to it. His four previous Derby mounts have closed at odds of 10-1, 59-1, 101-1, and 29-1, with the best finish coming from Ten Cents a Shine, who was eighth in 2003.
This year, however, virtually every serious handicapper gives Street Sense a legitimate chance, and the colt figures about 4-1 or 5-1, with Curlin being the only opponent likely to be sent off at lower odds. Reasonable or not, Borel's extraordinary confidence in Street Sense makes the colt a heavy favorite in Borel's mind.
"I love the way this colt is coming up to the Derby," he said. "He's doing unbelievable."
Borel has many strengths as a jockey but is particularly known for his penchant for saving ground, which has led to another oft-used nickname: Calvin Bo-rail. When Street Sense won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Tampa Bay Derby, Borel essentially cut the corner in the turn for home, keeping his mount just inches from the inner rail, as he has done thousands of times before.
Borel is aware that his rival jockeys in the Derby might be keeping their left eyes peeled for Street Sense and Borel trying to sneak through on the inside. Indeed, it probably would be in their best interests to block his path. But Borel believes the other Derby jockeys will be too caught up in riding their own races to keep him specifically in mind, and he scoffed at the notion that the inside rail is his only path to victory.
"There are two rails on that racetrack," he said. "I ain't got to be on the fence. If I need to go to the outside, that's what we'll do. As good as I think he is, this horse could run over the top of the grandstand. He's a racehorse."
Borel strongly believes the runner-up finish by Street Sense in the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland did not come close to representing what the colt is capable of doing. The reason: the synthetic Polytrack surface over which the Blue Grass was contested. Dominican won by a nose over Street Sense in a four-horse photo finish.
"It's like he swims over it, just spins his wheels," said Borel. "He doesn't like that Polytrack at all. If I had to judge his effort that day, out of 100, I'd give him about a 10. That's how much he hates it." Conversely, Street Sense thrives on the Churchill surface, Borel noted, with the colt's record-breaking 10-length triumph here last fall in the BC Juvenile serving as stark proof.
For any jockey, a Derby victory would stand out as a seminal moment in a career otherwise filled with countless mud-caked rides dotted by success of varying degrees. Borel is no different. Street Sense, he hopes, will run the race of his life Saturday and provide Borel with the thrill of his life.
"This business has its ups and downs, and I've seen them all," said Borel, who said he has suffered 32 different bone fractures since he began riding, the most recent being a wrist fracture suffered last November in a nasty spill at Churchill. "When I get up every day, it's a good day, and that's because I love this game."
For Borel, winning the Derby would culminate a lifetime of devotion to the animals and the game he has grown to love - no mistake about it.