The Odd Odyssey of Calvin Borel

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The Odd Odyssey of Calvin Borel
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Back On Mine That Bird At Belmont

Calvin Borel is the 34th jockey in horse racing history to win 4500 races. To say that this folksy, down-home Cajun is an accomplished rider would be to understate his achievements.

This Saturday, at the grand oval they call Belmont Park, Borel will attempt to become the first rider to win all three Triple Crown races while riding different horses.

He won at Churchill Downs last month on a lark called Mine That Bird—a 50-1 shot trained by a relative unknown by the name of Chip Woolley, Jr.  The back story read like something out of a Disney movie. Woolley brought the gelding to Kentucky from New Mexico in a trailer hitched to the back of his 1967 GMC pickup.

Borel had no mount for the Derby.  He was there primarily to ride the decorated filly, Rachel Alexandra the day before in the Kentucky Oaks. He was recruited by Woolley to ride this longshot in the big race.

Many did not see the forest through the trees at the Derby when it came to Mine That Bird. The horse had been getting better with each race. He came from stellar lineage (he was sired by Birdstone and his damsire is Smart Strike, who sired Curlin) and now had the devil-may-care Borel up in a wide-open field.

Mine That Bird ran like Secretariat that day. His 23.77 final quarter was the fastest since Big Red himself in 1973 and his 6-3/4 length victory was the largest since Assault in 1946.

Woolley and Mine That Bird became horse racing legends and Borel put another notch in his illustrious belt. They would shoot for the Triple Crown. Next stop: Pimlico.

Then the bad news came for Woolley. Borel was switching mounts on him. Rachel Alexandra's trainer, Steve Asmussen, announced that he was entering the filly in the Preakness.  Borel had a verbal commitment to ride Rachel Alexandra and being the loyal person he is, chose to honor it.

At Pimlico, Woolley transported his horse the same way he did two weeks prior. The Preakness was not in the original plans, but he had to go for it. He hired Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith to ride Mine That Bird.

That Saturday, it was a foregone conclusion that Borel would win easily aboard Rachel Alexandra.  A prohibitive favorite, Borel cruised throughout the majority of the race.  In the stretch, Borel knew that Mine That Bird would be bearing down on him.  He turned to see Smith and the talented gelding coming hard behind him.  The wire came just in time.  Smith and Woolley had almost stolen the race, finishing just a mere length off the lead.

Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. In the course of  two weeks Borel had shocked the world at the Derby and shattered an age old barrier in Maryland. His next move, however, would hinge on whether Asmussen would try his luck in the Belmont which many thought would not be wise.

After the Preakness, Woolley said his horse was not done. He was taking him to New York. He had not decided if Smith would continue as the gelding's rider. This week, Asmussen officially pulled Rachel Alexandra out of the third leg of the Triple Crown, and Woolley courted Borel, who agreed to remount Mine That Bird for the Belmont.

It is an odd story.  Mine That Bird is perfectly suited for the mile-and-a-half Belmont. He has been projected as an odds-on favorite. Borel will make sure bettors get their money's worth. Anything can happen, but should Borel cross the finish line first on Saturday, he will cross into history. 

Calvin Borel will have ridden a longshot, a favorite, and then the longshot who became a favorite. His odyssey is indoubtetly one of racing's most colorful and compelling stories. A low-budget cowboy hires a Cajun to ride a rocket of horse in the Triple Crown but in between, the Cajun spurns him for a silver spoon ride. Then returns leaving everyone wondering what might have been. Classic.

Just when horse racing was losing some of its luster, it managed to come up with the unlikeliest of stories—a Triple Crown jockey.

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