After spending the better part of two and a half decades grinding out a living as a professional jockey, Calvin Borel seized the inside track to stardom in 2009.
In a scene stolen from celluloid, Borel fell nearly 30 lengths off the pace before exploding past the entire field along the rail to win the Kentucky Derby aboard the anonymous Mine That Bird. As a 50-1 shot, it was the second biggest upset in the history of the “Run for the Roses.”
His stunning maneuvers didn’t end there.
Borel became the first jockey to switch from a Derby winner to a different horse in the Preakness Stakes. Borel jumped from Mine That Bird to super-filly Rachel Alexandra, who he had ridden to a 20-length victory in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks.
This time riding the favorite, Borel guided Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Preakness, edging out Mine That Bird. Borel was the first jockey to win the first two jewels of the Triple Crown on different horses.
Rachel Alexandra’s handlers decided to hold the filly out of the Belmont Stakes, so Borel returned to Mine That Bird and guaranteed victory. But on the mile-and-a-half track, Mine That Bird went too hard too early and finished third, ending Borel’s hopes of achieving his own Triple Crown.
It was a career year for the St. Martin Parish native who won his first Kentucky Derby in 2007 aboard Street Sense but had slipped back into obscurity since then. His Cajun joie de vivre and inexhaustible politeness made him the kindly face of horse racing in 2009 as he helped invigorate a sport that only sporadically appears on the radar of mainstream America.
Borel made appearances on The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He even rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
That is some rarefied territory, especially for a self-described country boy from Acadiana. Like most of Louisiana’s most successful jockeys he got his start on unsanctioned bush tracks, those makeshift proving grounds for amateur riders, often found amid sugar cane fields.
Borel raced for the first time when he was 8 years old and turned pro at 16. To this day he enjoys a reputation in horse racing circles as a tireless worker who handles the mundane chores at the track with uncommon alacrity.
It has all paid off.
This son of a sugar cane farmer has won more than 4,800 races with total career purse earnings in excess of $105 million, and he appears destined to enter the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY.
At only 5-foot-5 and 110 pounds, Borel has become, at long last, a titan in his profession.
Age: 43 Born: St Martinville, La. Resides: Louisville, Ky. Family: Fiancée, Lisa Funk Favorite food: Crawfish etouffée Favorite movie: Casey’s Shadow Favorite vacation spot: Florida Favorite Fair Grounds Memory: Won the Louisiana Champions Day Turf three years straight (1991-’93) aboard Dixie Poker Ace, an $800 horse that amassed nearly $900,000 in career earnings
What was your favorite on-the-track memory this year? Winning the Kentucky Derby. It was such an upset. It was such an unbelievable, unexpected thing that happened. I dreamed about winning the Derby one time and I got lucky – I won it twice.
What did you think of when you crossed the finish? I thought about my mom and dad. I just wished they were there to see what I accomplished in my life. That was the first thing that went through my mind. My mom did see me win the first one [in 2007], and then she passed away. I wish she could have been there but I had already won it once so I am very happy.
What was your favorite off-the-track memory? The best thing I did was go to the New York Stock Exchange. That was the greatest thing I’ve ever been to in my life. I got to ring the bell. It was just fun. You had to be there to see what I mean. It was incredible when they rang that bell to see what those people did.
What made you decide to switch mounts after the Kentucky Derby from Mine That Bird to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes? I thought Rachel Alexandra was the best horse I had ever been on in my life. My agent [Jerry Hissam] had talked to [Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley] and no matter what happened in the Derby, we agreed I would go with Rachel. I knew she was the best horse out there, and she proved it.
Is Rachel Alexandra a once-in-a-lifetime horse for a jockey? Oh yes, sir. She’s a horse like Secretariat. They’re not like other horses. She’s not normal.
You guaranteed victory about Mine That Bird in the Belmont. Any regrets? I had a lot of faith in the horse. Like I’ve said, it’s a race. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a done deal. We got beat.
How would you describe your passion for horse racing? It’s like a drug, sir. It’s a disease, especially when you’ve been in it all your life. When you cross that wire, there’s a feeling that you get. Whether it’s a $5,000 horse or a $1 million horse, there’s nothing like it. You can’t imagine. It’s hard to explain.
Do you have any more goals? I want to hit 5,000 [career wins]. I’ve proved everything I can prove but I’d like to get to 5,000. That’s my goal and we’ll see after that. I hope Rachel Alexandra comes back as a 4-year old and see if she can compete for a while, for the fans. You wouldn’t imagine how many fans love that filly and want to see her keep going. I think it would bring racing back a lot.
Why do you think so many people root for you? I think I’m just a likeable guy. I’m always going to tell you “Good Morning” and talk to you; it doesn’t matter. And I think I bring a lot of enthusiasm to the game. They love me, especially when I win. I put so much into my horses, and when they win I try to pay them back. And I’m here (at the track) all the time so that helps a lot.
Many people say you’ve remained the same despite your success. Why is that? My daddy always told me, “Don’t ever forget where you come from.” And if you make a goal and you put in the time and you want to do it, you can do it. Nobody’s going to give you nothing and that’s how I’ve gotten where I am today. So I’m not going to change.
Has your lifestyle changed much? No, sir. We’re up here in Louisville [where Borel has lived for the past 15 years]. I have my older brother and trainer Cecil. We don’t do anything fancy. We just enjoy life. We’re saving it for hard times.
You’ve sustained dozens of injuries in your career, including one accident that required your spleen to be removed.
Do you ever think about getting hurt while you’re riding? The day I get on a horse and I think about that, I’ll retire.
That’s the worst thing you can do. I never think about that. I don’t say I never will, but the day that happens is the day I retire.
True confession: I love to go with my fiancée when she rides jumping horses. I push her and I push her. My brother has pushed me all my life, and she wonders why I am the way that I am, and I tell her that all the time. And one day you’ll hear about her.
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.