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Calvin Borel: the face of horse racing
By Marcus Hersh
The comments from the 2011 past performances of 3-year-old colt Elite Alex read as follows: “5-wide, middle move,” “6-wide 1/4-pole, modest interest,” and “6-wide 1/4-pole, improved position.”
Elite Alex’s jockey these days is Calvin Borel, who sometimes is called Calvin Bo-rail because of his inside, fence-skimming rides. So who was this person on Elite Alex? Calvin No-rail? Tim Ritchey, who trains the colt, does not blame Borel for the first two starts. But at Fair Grounds in March, jockey and horse dropped way behind a tepid pace before moving wide and finishing fourth.
“The Louisiana Derby, it was just a little bit of a judgment error,” Ritchey said. “I think Calvin thought they were going a little faster than they were.”
Did Reggie Jackson give way to late-inning pinch-hitters in October?
“I have complete faith and trust in Calvin Borel,” Ritchey said last weekend.
In Borel, Ritchey already has the services of the best Kentucky Derby rider ever, by one measure. Borel, 44, has won the Derby three of the last four years, something no other jockey has accomplished, not even Mr. Derby, five-time winner Bill Hartack. In the midst of Borel’s one-man case of Derby fever he also found time to serve as regular rider for 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. His amazing four-year run is the reason his name appeared on the Racing Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year.
Borel was in his early 40’s when fame hit. The bald-headed jockey with the loopy smile and the thick Cajun accent wore his heart on his sleeve after a lifetime of racetrack work lifted him to the top of the sport. He made appearances on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, and the Today Show. George W. Bush hosted him at a White House dinner, where Borel met the Queen of England. From the outhouse to the White House is how Borel described his progression from low-end childhood in central Louisiana to a white-tie meal in Washington.
Among racing folks, Jerry Bailey is the most celebrated of modern jockeys. Borel, though, has broken into a higher plane of celebrity. He is the best-known face in racing outside of the sport. But Borel’s most recent television appearance played out more like a reality show than a talk show. On the far turn of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon last November, Borel literally had to boost jockey Martin Garcia back into his saddle after Javier Castellano aboard Prince Will I Am bulled his way off the fence, causing Garcia’s mount, Romp, to clip heels. Borel had to check hard on A.U. Miner, who finished fourth. With national television cameras trained on him, Borel confronted Castellano near the scale at the edge of the track where jockeys weigh out after races. Eyes popping, veins bulging, Borel seemed ready to commit a capital crime had he not been restrained.
“Me and him were talking in French, and I knew he was mad at someone, but he wouldn’t tell me who he was talking about,” said Jamie Theriot, Borel’s cousin and a fellow jockey who happened to be trackside. “I could tell when he was weighing out that something was going to happen.”
The Calvin Borel caught on-screen that day little resembled the guy aboard 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird with hands raised high in post-Derby jubilation, circa 2009, the polite fellow who called his interviewers “sir” or “ma’am,” unfailingly cheerful in public persona. But it was the same person, unfiltered and raw this time.
“He does have a temper,” said Borel’s wife, Lisa, 31. “He has a very long fuse, but once it goes off, you’d better step back. We’ve had some heated arguments where I’ve pushed him a little too far, and I know not to do that now.”
Borel’s fuse might have been quietly smoldering for months. He had won the Derby with Super Saver, but Super Saver flopped in the Preakness, and the rest of Borel’s season didn’t come up roses. Rachel Alexandra 2010 was nothing like Rachel Alexandra 2009, and Borel was among the first to grasp that fact.
“I didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “I’d go home, sit there, think about it. Everything comes to an end.”
Day-to-day business was not great, either. From May 2, the day after the 2010 Kentucky Derby, through this March 31, Borel won only 86 races. By comparison, Ramon Dominguez won 341 races, and Garrett Gomez, like Borel an aging veteran who picks his spots, won 119. Borel won five graded stakes in those 10 months. At the Saratoga meet, he won 4 of 60 races and was 0 of 20 in stakes.
Only a few years earlier, when Borel was just another jockey, few would even have noticed these trends. But fame and its accompanying pressure had come calling in just a 2 1/2-year span. Breeders’ Cup time, too, hardly is the stuff of joyous Borel memories: 12 career mounts, one winner, Street Sense in the 2006 Juvenile. And to compound these testing circumstances, Borel had gone down at Keeneland a couple of weeks before last year’s Breeders’ Cup, striking his head. His wife firmly believes Borel suffered a concussion that affected him Breeders’ Cup week and beyond.
“As soon as I saw what happened, I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ ” she said of the fight with Castellano. “It should have been in the jocks’ room, but he just went bonkers.”
All things considered, it’s a wonder Calvin Borel held things together as long as he did.
“It gets to you after a while,” he said.
Fast forward a couple of months, and Borel was back at his regular winter quarters, Oaklawn Park, and back to his regular routine. On a Saturday in mid-February, around 9 in the morning, he could be found in the place he seems most at home, the jockey’s room. He was nearly alone in the quiet room, sitting in his corner wedged between shelves of liniment containers, rolls of tape and mysterious oils, vitamin bottles – the tools of the trade. Jay Leno felt several planets removed.
“Every day he’s the first one into the room, the last one to leave,” Theriot said. “That’s his whole life.”
Borel gets an annual break after the Churchill fall season concludes around Thanksgiving, and he hooks back up with his agent of 20 years, Jerry Hissam, not long before Oaklawn gets started just past the first of the year.
“We take the winters off,” said Hissam, 66. “At Churchill, I say, ‘I’ll see you 10 days before Oaklawn.’ You don’t want to burn out.”
Lisa Borel spends most of the winter in Florida. Her parents have a farm there. She rides horses, spends times with friends.
“Being apart for four months wouldn’t work for some couples, but it does for us,” she said.
In Hot Springs, Calvin shares a house up in the lake country outside of town with Joe Johnson, a fellow jockey and one of his closest friends at the track. They started rooming not long after Borel’s first marriage ended in divorce.
“It was kind of a bad deal for him then,” Johnson said.
Johnson makes the coffee in the mornings. The two men enjoy fishing together, but fishing and hanging out at the house is about the extent of their social life.
“We don’t go out and party and stuff, hit the clubs,” Johnson said. “At night, I’ll read articles to him.”
Borel and Johnson have had this routine for years now. Out on the other side of Calvin’s dip into celebrity, the rhythm of life feels about the same.
“Same old Calvin,” Johnson said. “He’d never won a Kentucky Derby, and now he’s won three out of the last four, but he’s still the same person as before − down to earth, do everything for you. It didn’t change him. It made him more of a bigger celebrity, but it didn’t change him much.”
Underneath racing silks, Borel’s torso is chiseled and powerful. He has the build of a man half his age. Each morning Borel will put six to eight horses through workouts, far more than most riders who have reached his age or level of accomplishment. Hartack almost never went to the stables in the mornings after he hit it big.
“Those other boys would be out there wearing themselves out working horses while I’d be home asleep,” Hartack once said.
Borel likes to ride eight or nine in the afternoon, too.
“It gets you fit,” he said.
During slow times of the year, Borel swims to maintain condition.
“I swim till I can’t breathe no more,” he said.
During race meets, there is a bite or two of a biscuit each morning. Nothing else solid goes into his body until the evening, when he has steamed fish or vegetables. For much of his life as a jockey, which began at Louisiana bush tracks when Calvin hadn’t hit his teens, Borel threw up his food to control his weight. Some call it flipping; Borel prefers the term heaving.
“I rode for about three years, and then I started, which probably was the worst thing I ever did in my life,” Borel said.
In the fall of 2007, Borel checked into a Kentucky clinic to try to change the eat-and-purge cycle that ruled his days. The sight of young girls with eating disorders, all skin and bones, shocked him. The clinic started feeding him five small meals a day, and though Borel was keeping the food down, he gained no weight.
“It was the dangedest thing,” he said. “I came out of there lighter than I came in. And now I have no trouble at all. I’m lighter than I’ve ever been.” Asked if the diet change prolonged his career, Borel assented.
“A lot,” he said. “I told Lisa I was ready to quit, but every time I thought about it, I thought, ‘Man, I can’t do it.’ ”
Lisa Borel, married to Calvin since 2008, had other ideas.
“That’s probably my greatest achievement as a human being − convincing him to try that,” she said. “He is so set in his ways. He has his security blankets.
“If he was still flipping, I don’t think he would’ve been able to take the pressure, with Rachel, taking off Mine That Bird [after winning the Derby],” she said. “And that’s his strongest asset − to shake off the pressure.”
Lisa Borel seems to be a strong asset in her own right. She is sensible and articulate, tuned into Borel’s psyche, and unafraid to speak her mind. The couple met at Ellis Park, where horse-loving Lisa was working for trainer Ron Moquette.
“We’ve been perfect for each other,” she said. “I’m very much in love with him, the same as when I met him.”
Calvin Borel needs human assets, or as he said, “I will always depend on somebody.” For years, that somebody was one of his three older brothers, Cecil, who took him to the racetrack and taught him the ropes.
“I always had my brother there,” Calvin Borel said. “For making the kind of money we make, you’re a kid, bringing home six, seven thousand. I got home, I had my check, I’d give it to my brother, and I had $50. I think that was a big role in my life.”
Cecil still is an active trainer, but Calvin has other people in his life now. Hissam, for one, is nearly a constant presence.
“Jerry is a part of Calvin’s routine,” Lisa Borel said. “Very, very seldom is Jerry not there. He’s very protective of Calvin, especially where the press is concerned, but the truth is, he just cares about Calvin. Jerry is a get-it-done type of person. He gives him what he needs when I’m not there and his brother’s not there.”
During a recent interview with Borel, Hissam at first disappeared around the corner into the jocks’ room kitchen, but his presence was palpable, and it was not long before he moseyed back into the room, pulling up a seat and participating in the conversation. At times, it almost feels as if Borel chafes against Hissam’s mother-hen approach, but it was Hissam who took control of the reins when Calvin’s weekly agenda suddenly included multiple media appearances.
“We’ve never had two arguments in our life,” Hissam said of his relationship with Calvin. “We’ve never had two cross words in our life. I know how he feels, I know how far he can go with things, I know where to take his limits to. I know by doing what he’s accomplished that all these things come along with it. You have to try to be nice, be polite, help everyone − until they step on my toes. When they step on my toes, I come fighting back. There was a lot of the time the press was mad at me.”
Borel has gotten plenty of press, most of it favorable. His wife said she used to read every word written about her husband. Now she lets much of it go. After the epic 2009 spring of Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, Borel heard brickbats lobbed at him last year.
“People try to put words in your mouth,” Calvin Borel said. “I always thought about what my dad used to say: ‘Believe half of what you see and nothing what you hear.’ I listen to people − but half of what you see and nothing what you hear.”
Borel said he still often thinks about Belmont week, 2009, when he went to New York early and logged plenty of camera time. Back aboard Mine That Bird after taking off to win the Preakness on Rachel Alexandra, Borel, in the eyes of some observers, moved his mount prematurely. Mine That Bird finished third.
“We did a lot of stuff before the race,” he said. “I’m not saying it got him beat, but I think I could have rode him better.”
Borel became a hit in front of the general public. Suddenly, there was a human face on horse racing that felt compelling and genuine.
“People can relate to Calvin,” Lisa Borel said. “He’s just an everyday kind of guy. Ninety percent of the population watching horse racing can’t relate to millionaires and billionaires, but here’s a working-class guy who comes from a blue-collar background. I think he thinks people relate to him because he gets so excited when he wins, but I think he represents people’s hopes and dreams.
“Calvin’s not a professional talker,” she said. “He’s a professional rider. You get what you get with him. Whatever comes out of his mouth is whatever is on the top of his brain. It’s nothing that was formulated. The only thing he cares about is what the horse thinks of him, not what people think about.”
Calvin Borel is not a major force at Oaklawn Park these days. The return on investment for $2 win bets on Borel mounts this Oaklawn meet is $1.37, the lowest among the top 15 Oaklawn riders this season. With 23 wins through last week, Borel ranked seventh in the jockey standings, about where he wound up in 2009. In 2008 and 2010, Borel finished third, and he hasn’t won an Oaklawn riding title since 2001.
Churchill Downs? That’s a different story. Borel has topped the standings there in two of the last three meetings and was beaten one win by Julien Leparoux four race meets ago. Last spring, his mounts won 27 percent of the time. In three of the last four Churchill meets, the horses Borel rode showed a positive return on investment. Two years before Borel first tried riding in Louisville, Borel told Hissam he wasn’t ready to make the jump from his regular summer venue, Louisiana Downs. Now only Pat Day has won more Churchill races than Borel. Day won the Derby once.
“The thing that stands out to me about Calvin, he obviously has Churchill figured out better than anyone,” said Todd Pletcher, who got his first Derby win last year thanks to Borel’s ride on Super Saver.
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At Churchill, Borel’s rail-hugging tendencies come out in full force, especially in the Derby. Hissam points out that in the three Kentucky Derby wins Borel’s mounts had to pass a total of 54 horses on their way to victory: Borel went inside 50 of them.
“It’s amazing to see him do that in the Derby, and it’s amazing to see it five, six days a week at Churchill,” Pletcher said. “Everyone knows he’s going to be there, and yet he’s there anyway.”
Borel said the bulky Derby fields help him sneak through on the inside.
“The more horses you have in a race, the easier it is, because with that many everyone is just riding their own horse,” Borel said. “A five-horse field, I can race-ride you. A 20-horse field, you can’t watch everyone.”
It is unthinkable that, barring injury, Borel will not wind up on one of those 20 horses May 7. Maybe Elite Alex will leap forward in the Arkansas Derby and earn a place in the Derby field. If not, Hissam’s phone surely will ring with other inquiries. Borel’s first Derby, on Street Sense, was meant to happen. Trainer Carl Nafzger long had been a Borel supporter, and he hand-picked Borel to start riding Street Sense as a 2-year-old. Winding up on Mine That Bird and Super Saver fell more into the arena of Calvin’s Derby mystique.
“Two years ago I was out of prospects when Mine That Bird came along,” Hissam said.
Borel’s first four Derby hopes that spring got hurt or crapped out before the race came around. Mine That Bird’s 6 3/4-length Derby victory is the only win Borel has for trainer Chip Woolley. For Pletcher, Borel has ridden seven winners from 49 races, but Borel fell into the Super Saver mount during fall 2009 and managed to retain it despite having to miss Super Saver’s Tampa Bay Derby because he rode Rachel Alexandra in New Orleans.
“My odds of winning the Kentucky Derby for Todd Pletcher were 1,000-1,” Hissam said.
The odds of Calvin Borel making it into the Hall of Fame in 2011 are considerably lower. He is a short price for election even though his statistics pale in comparison to jockeys already enshrined. Consider, for instance, that Bailey won 764 graded stakes in his career; Borel has won 83, less than half the number Robby Albarado has bagged. But this torrent of Derby wins is unprecedented, Borel’s personal narrative has heart, and perhaps most remarkable, all this glory came in what should have been the twilight of a career.
“I’ve used the statement before,” Hissam said. “Calvin’s a 25-year overnight success.”
One wonders how many more springs Borel will be out there, awaiting another magical Derby ride. His goals, he says, are 5,000 career wins and a place in the Hall of Fame: Both could be attained within a year.
“When I wake up in the morning my feet hit the ground,” he said. “I’m going to the barn to see the horses. And I love it. I love the game. The day I’m gonna wake up and not want to be here, that’s the day I’m going to retire.”
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