Unbridled, and still unchanged
Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Borel still a down-to-earth guy
CALVIN BOREL is the neighbor we wish we all had, the friend everybody wants — a man who is without guile and, in an increasingly contentious world, a calm in the middle of the storm.
There were 19 other jockeys who desperately wanted to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby. But none of them could have been unhappy that Calvin won. He would have been happy for any one of them.
"If a trainer got in a jackpot, say the guy's house burned down, Calvin Borel could be the leading rider at the meet by 30 wins and he would be the kind of guy that would go back and gallop horses for the guy or muck stalls for the guy just to help him out," Smarty Jones' trainer John Servis said. "And you never have to ask him."
When the 20 horses lined up for the post parade, Borel, on Street Sense, was blowing kisses to his friends in the Churchill Downs grandstand. He was in his element. This was his moment and he seemed to know it, as much as you can know anything in horse racing.
After giving Street Sense a ride that was perfect in every way, Borel heard his good friend Robbie Albarado, riding Curlin, coming from behind after the wire. Borel reached over and tapped Albarado on the right shoulder.
When NBC's Donna Brothers pulled alongside Borel after the race on her pony, it was more sheer joy than an actual interview.
Borel, enunciating as only a true Cajun can, was trying to put into words what he did and what it meant.
"I just want to thank my brother for getting me here," Borel shouted into the microphone. "I wish my mommy and daddy was here. This is the most, greatest moment of my life."
How can you not love somebody who has a most-greatest moment?
Calvin's brother, Cecil, is a horse trainer. His Kentucky stable has 10 horses. None is Derby caliber or remotely close. His barn isn't strong enough to get stalls in the main stable area at Churchill. He is a few miles away at Trackside, the old harness track that is now an overflow stable area. Cecil has started 29 horses in 2007. And won three races.
Yet, every morning, Calvin comes to Cecil's before dawn to gallop horses or muck stalls. A top rider with more than 4,300 wins does not need to do that. Calvin Borel does it because he wants to.
Calvin's daddy died a few years ago. His mother, 84, is paralyzed on the right side from a stroke.
Cecil, 52, is 12 years older than Calvin. They are best friends. When they paired to win a claiming race at Churchill the Saturday before the Derby, they greeted each other like roses were waiting for them in the winner's circle.
On the way back to the Derby's winner's circle, Calvin kept pulling his helmet off and waving it to the crowd. When he was handed a sponge near the winner's circle, he dipped it into a water bucket and squeezed the water onto his mount's head.
All of the outriders, decked out in their red jackets and black hats, made a special trip to see Calvin as he brought Street Sense back around the clubhouse turn. A Churchill regular, Borel was greeted very much like the hometown high school star who has just scored the winning touchdown in the state championship game. Only this was the biggest event on the biggest stage in his sport.
After Borel answered a steady barrage of questions at the postrace news conference, he politely said he needed to leave because he had a mount in the last race. Borel's agent told him he could get him out of that mount.
Calvin told him, "I promised those people I would ride that horse."
So, precisely 80 minutes after he brought Street Sense from the back to the front, Borel broke out of the starting gate on Superb Ravi, a 4-year-old filly running in an allowance race on the grass. As all of those people were streaming toward the exits, the jockey who had just won the Derby was trying to win the 12th.
Superb Ravi dueled for the lead before tiring to finish fifth. No matter, Calvin Borel had made his point — again. He had a commitment and he would honor it.
Borel, born in St. Martinville, La., learned to ride in those legendary match races at tracks where there are no parimutuel machines. Only people with money who think their horse is faster than your horse. Borel was riding in those races when he was 8 years old. More than three decades later, he estimates he has broken 32 bones. Now, he's won the Derby.
Borel has never wanted to do anything but ride horses and win horse races. School did not interest him. He was like a gypsy who ran away from home to be with the circus — except he stayed at home to be around the horses.
If it looked as if Street Sense and Borel were one being as they took the far turn — as if they were on some amusement ride that might never slow down — that's precisely how it was supposed to look. Every great jockey will tell you he wants to be part of the horse so the horse can feel comfortable. On Saturday, Borel, who has ridden Street Sense in all eight of his starts, really did appear to be an extension of the horse, a passenger on a fast vessel headed for some unknown point that was lit up in the distance.
Last night, Calvin Borel, who left school at age 12 never to return, was at the White House for a state dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II, who had seen him win the Derby from her perch on the fourth-floor balcony.
See him and listen to him, you really do think he's Forrest Gump in jockey pants. At the White House, he really was Forrest Gump, appearing in a place where you just can't imagine him appearing.
A week from Saturday, Borel will be appearing at Pimlico in Baltimore, an hour from the White House, where he will ride Street Sense in the Preakness.
Jerry Bailey never won the Triple Crown. Neither did Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr., Pat Day, Chris McCarron or Gary Stevens. All those great riders are retired now.
And Calvin Borel, newly discovered at 40, is the only jockey alive with a chance at this Triple Crown, a prize that has eluded everyone since Steve Cauthen won it on Affirmed in 1978. Win the next two or not, Borel will almost certainly still be the same person Servis described.
Circumstances change. Who you are really never does. *