05/06/2007 11:00PM

You've gotta like this guy

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The first thing you notice is that Calvin Borel groupies are cut from a whole different hunk of cloth. Two of them were glued to the railing near the Churchill Downs jockeys' room late last Saturday, waiting for their main man to finish wading through the waves of Derby media just so they could give him a "Hey, Boo!"

"We didn't want to come down, 'cause we catch crawfish for a living, and it's the season for us right now," said Dale Barras, who hails from the corner of Louisiana's Cajun country that has spawned a whole army of top jocks. "But we had to leave. Had no choice."

David Savoir nodded his "Calvin Borel/Street Sense" cap in happy agreement.

"We known him all his life," Savoir said. "He told us to come on up, spend a few days. He gave us hats, stickers, everything. We brought him cracklins from home, and a big ol' ice chest full of crawfish. He opened it up Friday morning and just stared."

The two men were talking at pretty much the same time, still bubbling with the excitement of the day, as the rest of the huge crowd swirled around them, fresh from the sight of Street Sense and Borel winning like it was easy as Derby pie.

"I galloped horses with him when he were kids," Barras said, "and we'd go to the races with his mom and dad in their truck. Calvin would throw one leg out the truck, hook on some reins, and ride that truck on the interstate, racing cars. His mama would shout back in French, 'Keep still, Boo Boo!' "

Seems Borel never did keep still. And now here it is, 30 years and more than 4,300 winners later, and Calvin Borel has gone and won himself a Kentucky Derby.

"He used to go to school with his whip, and they all teased him," Barras added. "They're not teasing him no more."

Praising to the high heavens, is more like it. There hasn't been a Derby-winning jockey this popular since homegrown Don Brumfield wore the roses with Kauai King 41 years ago. Pity Donna Brothers of NBC, who used to ride against Borel, just trying to do a horseback interview in the flushed moments right after Street Sense beat Hard Spun by 2 1/4 lengths. Jock after jock in the field of 20 kept crowding in, hammering and hugging Borel, who had long since tossed the reins and was playing shamelessly to an adoring Louisville crowd.

Outrider Greg Blasi, resplendent in his Derby Day red jacket and white breeches, had a front-row seat as he brought Street Sense and Borel back to the winner's circle, by way of the outside rail.

"He was screaming, 'Next Triple Crown winner! Next Triple Crown winner! He's the man!' " Blasi said.

Blasi's younger brother Scott is chief assistant to Steve Asmussen. They had to settle for third place with the previously unbeaten Curlin.

"It would have been great to have brought a winner back to Scott," Blasi said. "But hey, he's young. Steve's young. If anybody in this business deserves what just happened, that man Calvin Borel does, I promise you. People around here watch Calvin ride $5,000 claimers just as hard as he rode that horse. They know where he comes from, and how hard he had to work to get here today.

"It wasn't but just last fall, at the very end of the meet here, we're sitting there on the turn where he fell, holding his head and waiting for the EMTs," Blasi added. "And that was just a short while after he won the Breeders' Cup."

In fact, it was just 19 days after Borel and Street Sense powered to their 10-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for trainer Carl Nafzger and owner James Tafel when the jockey went down on the Churchill Downs turf, fracturing his right wrist in five places. Borel was leading the local standings at the time, while the horse - a son of Pulpit named Pew who had to be euthanized - was trained by Ian Wilkes, better known as Carl Nafzger's right-hand man and heir apparent as the stable's head trainer.

"You've got to give Carl and them a lot of credit," Blasi noted. "They stuck by Calvin."

Less than two months later Borel was back in action, riding opening day at Oaklawn Park, and in plenty of time to join Street Sense for his 2007 debut in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 17. Borel was still sporting a support bandage on his wrist on Derby Day, and good thing, too, the way he was waving at familiar faces on the way to the post, and then brandishing his whip with a flourish nearing the finish line. As Blasi led Street Sense on his victory lap, Borel stood in the saddle and saluted with both hands, then leaned over and gave the outrider a king-sized bear hug.

"Last year, when Edgar Prado had his helmet over his head and didn't have a hold of the reins, all I could think about was Barbaro making a little spurt forward and he rolls right off the back," Blasi said. "But Calvin's got unbelievable balance. I've seen him do some amazing things on a horse. Street Sense wasn't gonna get him off if he wanted to."

Not that he'd want to try. Street Sense has run eight times, and Borel has been there for every one. Number nine will likely come in the Preakness, but until then, Borel can deal with his lightning bolt of newfound fame.

"I just want them to look at me as Calvin Borel," he said to one last gathering of notebooks and microphones. "Work always gets you somewhere. Mr. Carl told me I rode a good race, and that's all I wanted to hear."