CRAWFORD | Memories from a rail trip: On Calvin Borel's retireme - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Memories from a rail trip: On Calvin Borel's retirement

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Calvin Borel after winning Kentucky Derby 135 aboard longshot Mine That Bird. (AP photo) Calvin Borel after winning Kentucky Derby 135 aboard longshot Mine That Bird. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In 2010, a few moments after Calvin Borel won the Kentucky Derby for the third time in four years — a feat no other jockey in the race’s history has accomplished — somebody asked him how he did it.

Borel’s answer: “I was born to ride, sir.”

There was no bravado in the statement. It was just the best way he could describe it.

He also, incidentally, was right.

When I heard on Wednesday that Calvin Borel, at age 49, quietly had sent word of his retirement out through his agent, I thought about all the things Borel has meant to people around here, and to the sport, too.

For me, Borel meant one thing above all else — good copy. He was a good story. No, wait. Quick edit. He was a great one.

My Kentucky Derby Day assignment for nearly a decade at The Courier-Journal was was always the same — winning jockey. I was to latch onto him from the minute he arrived in front of the grandstand after the race, and stay as close as I could, for as long as I could, following him into jocks' room and even to the Kentucky Derby Museum winner’s reception well after the race, talking to him if I could, listening to what he said, watching what he did.

For Kentucky Derbies 133 (Street Sense), 135 (Mine That Bird) and 136 (Super Saver), that meant following Calvin Borel.

Probably the most striking thing about those three victories was this: He was the same, every time.

Every time, he cried when Donna Brothers came up to interview him. And yes, I have a soft spot for winners who cry. But every time, he was so grateful to his owners that he struggled to express it. And every time, he was so happy, it seemed every line on his weathered face was smiling.

Every time, I’d walk back into the paddock area after the race and the throngs of fans hanging on the fences and watching from the porticoes above were cheering as if they’d won the race themselves.

I won’t forget after he won the Kentucky Derby for the first time, as heady as that experience was, and after riding yet one more race after the Derby was over, he stopped at the paddock fence to hand a woman the goggles he’d been wearing, before running off to get cleaned up for the reception.

Why did he do that? Because earlier in the week she’d told him she knew he was going to win, and asked him for his goggles if he did. Borel told him if he won, they were hers.

He won. And just as important, he remembered.

Borel won the Derby in front of the Queen of England and went to a White House state dinner in white tie with full pomp. But those people in the paddock, and especially the ones back in the barns, are his people.

And he became their royalty.

No other jockey in America could’ve gotten on 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird and weaved him to victory the way Borel did in Kentucky Derby 135, the second-biggest longshot ever to win the race.

Good copy. “The Good Book says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” I got to write that day. “That, however, was written before anyone ever saw Calvin Borel ride a horse. . . . Some horses get a perfect trip. (Mine That Bird) got a perfect ride.”

He came rolling late along the rail and Bob Baffert, whose Pioneerof the Nile was leading the race, asked who was closing. When he realized it was Borel, he just said, “Oh no.”

Oh yes. After the race, in the paddock, Borel saw the same woman who’d gotten his goggles. He threw her his hat.

That was the year Borel rode Rachel Alexandra to victory in the Oaks, and he would ride in her historic win in the Preakness, before failing in his own “Calvin Crown” quest aboard Mine That Bird in the Belmont.

A year later, they still hadn’t learned. It was Derby Day, Borel was aboard the Todd Pletcher-trained Super Saver, and nobody closed the rail lane Borel charged through to win the race. Borel cried afterward. He passed his fan in the paddock and tossed her a rose from the garland. He was scheduled to ride the next race but was overheated and had to back out.

I caught jockey and Louisville resident Robby Albarado after that race. He said, “We all know what he’s going to do. And he does it over and over again. Mr. Derby. He’s Mr. Derby to me.”

Let it be so recorded.

Borel started 34,915 races. He won 5,146, and 1,189 of those were at Churchill Downs. Only Pat Day has won more under the Twin Spires, and only Day and Albarado have won more stakes races at Churchill.

When news of his retirement broke, Churchill Downs president Kevin Flanery weighed in.

“Along with his three Kentucky Derby victories and his status as one of the most accomplished jockeys in Churchill Downs history, Calvin’s 20 years at our track were as notable for his relationship with our fans as his excellence on the track,” Flanery said. “Calvin rose to racing’s Hall of Fame from humble beginnings, and that was reflected in his ongoing relationship with our fans – and especially children. He loved the kids and felt a responsibility to provide a positive image to them and to let them know daily how much he appreciated them. There have been few, if any, individuals quite like Calvin Borel in 142 years of history at Churchill Downs. We thank him for a job well done and wish him the best in the future.”

In 2013, he was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame. Only eight other jockeys have won at least 5,000 races and at least four Triple Crown races. The list is legendary: Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Angel Cordero Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye, Jerry Bailey and Kent Desormeaux.

When he first began racing at age 8, under the tutelage of his brother, Cecil, Borel probably never dreamed of such a finish. Horses didn’t really stop once they crossed the finish line at those Louisiana bush tracks. The jockeys just jumped off.

When a horse flipped on him and shattered his knee, he quit school. He was in the eighth grade. When he was 18 a filly threw him into a light post and he had to have his spleen removed and was in a coma for a short time. He came back. Cecil put him on the same filly. He rode her to a victory.

It was Cecil who taught him his signature rail-riding style. One race when Calvin was just 16, he ran five- or six-wide all the way around and when he got to back to the barn, Cecil had him walk the horse around the shed row, instead of the hot walker. Cecil stuck a barrel in one of the corners and told his brother to walk around it. After a few trips around, Calvin shouted, why’s this barrel here? Cecil told him, if you don’t want to walk around that barrel, why do you want to race on the outside? Cecil put it there to show him. The inside is the shortest route.

But Borel took no short cuts to racing fame. Long before he won the Derby, he won the admiration and respect of those on the backside. He arrived before dawn, worked as many horses as he could, did any job he was asked.

He married Lisa Funk, who was his girlfriend at the time of his first Derby win. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his career took off after they came together. Here was a guy who started out on bush tracks in Louisiana, labored until lightning struck when he was 40, then he was doing Leno and Letterman, dining with the President and Queen of England.

He was the face of horse racing. And for a few years, was its heart. But after so many wins and thrills, losses and broken bones, it has to stop sometime.

Next to covering a Triple Crown, being around for Borel’s heyday is probably the best thing I’ve been able to witness in horse racing.

And even though they say he’s retiring, I’m pretty sure that when they turn for home in the Kentucky Derby, I’ll still be scanning back along the rail, just to make sure Calvin Borel isn’t mounting one final charge for the roses.

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