05/18/2010 12:00AM

There's a reason Borel owns the rail


One morning at Tampa Bay Downs, a quarter of a century or so ago, the veteran rider David Penna took a 17-year-old apprentice by the hand and led her from the jocks' room lunch counter into the Florida sunshine and out onto the track.

"What're you doing?" she protested. "My food's coming."

"There's someone I want you to meet," Penna explained. "Been wanting to meet you for a while now. Someone who will be very important to you."

Upon reaching the inside of the track, at about the eighth pole, Penna placed the bug's hand on the white rail.

"Julie, this is the rail," Penna began. "I know you two haven't seen much of each other, but the object is to stay as close to it as possible."

The tale is not exactly apocryphal, but Julie Krone still likes to tell it as an illustrative lesson of how young jockeys at some point need to learn even the most basic principles of racetrack geography. I'm sure our daughter will hear even more entertaining versions of the story as she grows.

By now, it's clear that Calvin Borel made friends with the inside rail at a very young age, and now, at 43, the romance is in full bloom. Three rail-skimming Kentucky Derby victories in the last four years - with Street Sense, Mine That Bird, and Super Saver - have progressed from curious coincidence to established trend.

On Saturday, Borel loses his best pal, Churchill Downs, when he rides Super Saver in the 135th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The change of venue would seem to be the only thing left that might bring Borel back to the field.

"Not taking nothing from Calvin, but he knows Churchill Downs like the back of his hand," said Mark Guidry, who retired from riding in 2007 with 5,044 winners. "You get half a horse off that rail path, and you'll be bogging pretty good. But you get right on top of it, like Calvin does, it's a good path."

Borel and Guidry, now a trainer, were raised in Louisiana's Cajun country. While certain assumptions can be made about jockeys hatched in that particular nursery, including the ability to make the English language do the hoochie-cooch, it would be a mistake to presume a rail-riding stereotype.

"I was always the kind of rider who'd go around, come from left field, and make sure I stayed out of trouble," Guidry said. "Calvin, though, he's been lucky. In four Derbies he's gone around, what, two horses? That's unheard of, against 20 head. He goes in focused, and he takes advantage of the situation. He knows them boys ain't gonna get right on top of that fence where they need to be. They're gonna come off it, and once they start hitting those little soft spots, they've got to go out further to get better footing, while Calvin's tip-toeing around there."

Two of Chris McCarron's 7,141 winners came in the Kentucky Derby. These days, he shares his experience with hopeful young riders at the North American Racing Academy near Lexington, Ky. Not surprisingly, Borel's daring Derby rides have come up in class discussions lately.

"Obviously, all of us are impressed with his ability to take chances like that and have them work out the way he wants them to," McCarron said.

"In order to be able to do what he does, a rider has to be able to see way ahead," McCarron pointed out. "And not just see it. He must understand what he's looking at so he can analyze the situation and know when to take chances and when not to. Calvin has a knack for allowing his horse an uninterrupted run for a long period of time.

"I teach my students that you've got to be thinking 10 seconds ahead all the time. By the time that 10 seconds is over, you should have already made your decision, and you don't want to second-guess yourself."

As for clinging to the rail, McCarron looked to his past for perspective.

"Years ago there were jockeys you'd really be taking a chance trying to get through on," he said. "Angel was one, and they told me Ralph Neves was that way, too. You were invading their territory, and if you tried to get through, you'd be seeing sparks. There'd be some paint flying."

McCarron was schooled by Nick Shuk, a Mid-Atlantic veteran who retired in 1981 with 2,669 winners.

"A couple times I tried to get through on him, and he scared the crap out of me," McCarron said. "My brother, Gregg, was riding there, and he'd laugh, 'Just don't do it again.' "

Out in California, where he has won most of his 10,808 races, Hall of Famer Russell Baze had his own Nick Shuk.

"When I first started, there was a guy named John Wilburn," Baze said. "He stuck to the fence like glue, and he'd get extremely upset if anyone tried to sneak through inside him. There were a lot of riders like him. They'd open it a little bit, sucker you up in there, and then shut the door. Hopefully, they'd shut the door before you got in there."

Baze credits Borel's Derby success with knowing his opposition.

"I don't know if it's the formation of a particular track so much as the attitude of the riders going around that track," Baze said. "If you've got a colony of riders who don't really pay attention to guarding the fence, the opportunities are going to present themselves more often.

"What surprises me is that he does get away with it so often," Baze added. "It's not like he's trying it for the first time. You know the guy's back there. You know he's gonna try and beat you coming through on the rail. And still they keep coming off the fence for him. It boggles the mind that he can keep doing it, and no one's stopping him."