02/13/2013 4:07PM

Oaklawn Park: Borel on verge of 5,000th win as he begins comeback

Barbara D. Livingston
Calvin Borel's march to 5,000 wins has been slowed by a broken wrist. He is expected to resume riding this weekend.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Jockey Calvin Borel is expected to make his comeback this weekend at Oaklawn Park. He is one win away from his 5,000th career victory, a milestone he has been on the verge of since he won an allowance at Fair Grounds in his most recent ride Dec. 28.

Borel, a 47-year-old native of St. Martinville, La., has been nursing a broken bone in his left wrist. He was diagnosed with the injury three days before the Jan. 11 start of the Oaklawn meet. Borel was fitted with a cast, has rehabbed locally, and on Wednesday morning was finally able to get back on some horses during training hours at Oaklawn. He was named on a mount for Friday’s program – a horse trained by his brother, Cecil Borel – but the race did not fill.

Borel has horses lined up to ride for Saturday and Sunday, and if those races go, he will try to become the 26th jockey in North American history to ride 5,000 winners. Borel is best known for winning the Kentucky Derby three times, with Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009, and Super Saver in 2010. Borel is one of just nine jockeys to have won the Kentucky Derby three or more times, and of them, only three have won 5,000 or more races: Bill Shoemaker (8,833), Angel Cordero (7,057), and Kent Desormeaux, at 5,472 through Wednesday.

“It’s a very, very big milestone,” Borel said of hitting 5,000. “It’s not like winning the Derby, but it’s a very big accomplishment. I’m fortunate to get here.”

Borel first hopped aboard a horse at the age of 3, said his older brother, Cecil Borel, the trainer for whom Calvin won his 4,999th race on Dec. 28. By the age of 7 or 8, Calvin began riding at the bush tracks in his homestate of Louisiana.

“He was born to ride,” said Cecil Borel, 59. “I’d catch him in the pasture when he was 3- or 4-years-old and he’d be climbing on the horse without a bridle. He loved it so much. Nobody had to teach him much as far as handling the horse. He was just a natural. Later on when he got to riding, everything else fell into place.”

Borel won his first race Jan. 14, 1983, at Delta Downs. One of Borel’s first major wins came in 1991, aboard Free Spirit’s Joy in the Grade 1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Two years later, Borel struck with 108-1 longshot Rockamundo in the Arkansas Derby. His circuit widened to Kentucky, and it would be at Churchill Downs where Borel would take his career to another level.

“Winning the Kentucky Derby for the first time with Street Sense, I’ll never feel that moment again,” said Borel, who lives in Louisville with his wife, Lisa. “It was the most incredible feeling in the world. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t sleep. It was amazing, and it went by so fast.

“It turned my life around. It took me 20-something years to win the Derby, but it can be done.”

It wasn’t long before Borel did it again, with Mine That Bird in a last-to-first burst up the rail. The longshot’s win has inspired a motion picture that does not yet have a release date. Borel acts in the movie overseen by Jim Wilson, the Academy Award-winning producer of “Dances With Wolves.”

“Calvin lights up the screen in our new film, ‘50-1’, the story of Mine That Bird,” Wilson said. “What a consummate professional. We thought for a long time who would play Calvin Borel. Well, there’s only one Calvin, and we were fortunate to get him.”

The same year as Mine That Bird, Borel was the regular rider aboard Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, during a campaign that included wins in the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward.

“For a 3-year-old filly to do what she did, she was an incredible filly,” Borel said. “She had a stride that was so big . . . She had such a long, long jump. A normal horse might be 20 to 22 feet. She was jumping 26 and that’s not start and stop, that’s start to finish. It takes a wonder horse to do that.”

“I really admired how much he cared about Rachel Alexandra,” said Steve Asmussen, who trained Rachel Alexandra from the Preakness on. “It was very obvious how much he truly cared about her, and that’s the best quality you can have in somebody that works around horses.”

Carl Nafzger, who trained Street Sense, echoed similar sentiments about Borel.

“Calvin is a horseman,” Nafzger said. “He can tell you something about a horse, help you a lot as a trainer. He’s a horseman’s horseman.”

Borel has had three agents during his career, the longest being Jerry Hissam, a more than 20-year partner with whom the rider estimates he has won 4,000 races. But for the remainder of the Oaklawn meet, Borel will be represented by Doc Danner while Hissam is recovering from an illness. 

While Borel acknowledges the 5,000-win milestone will be special, his objective is to win another Derby.

“I’m having fun, riding a few horses, and picking my [young horses] out to try to bring them up to the Derby,” he said. “My goal is to find the next Derby horse. That first Saturday in May, it never goes away.”