Calvin Borel: 5 Reasons Why Elite Jockey Is the King of the Kentucky Derby
I hate to make the comparison because, frankly, it seems unjust. One is pure evil, one is pure, simplistic joy. But in The Dark Knight, the goons essentially have the Joker on a leash. When they really want to get serious, they cut the leash and all Hell breaks lose, and not even the goons can stop the madness.
Calvin Borel is a Kentucky Derby mercenary without the sociopathic tendencies of a mass murderer/bank robber/anarchist in face paint and facial scars. But he is the ace in the hole.
Borel has won three Kentucky Derbys since 2007, more or less in the twilight of his career. He's not the greatest jockey on the planet, but there's something about Churchill Downs that brings out the best in him and the best in the horse below his 110-pound frame.
All of which makes Calvin Borel the King of the Kentucky Derby.
Experience Under Fire
The most obvious, and thus the first point to be made, is that Calvin Borel has done this before, three times to be exact. That kind of experience can’t be overlooked.
There are richer races to be run in the world (not many), but the Kentucky Derby is the Super Bowl of horse racing. It’s the one race—and I do mean one race—that the casual sports fan has been acquainted with.
There’s a LOT of pressure to win this race and it’s the rose-colored feather in the cap of every jockey in this land, whether they ride regal bloodlines or Shrek's donkey.
Borel is the picture of calm before a race (after is another beast altogether, see photo). It’s the calm that now has over 5,000 career wins. It’s the calm of knowing that he can elevate mediocre talent to their best on a day when they’ll face their steepest test.
Three Derbys in a span of six years. You can’t buy that kind of ice.
Calvin Borel is the resident mayor of Churchill Downs. You could put a blindfold on both him and his horse and he’ll pilot that bad boy around the oval with barely a misstep.
Borel works horses in the morning and he races there every afternoon. While other high-profile jockeys chase higher purses during other prestigious meets across the country, Borel stays home.
Many jockeys flying in for the Derby only ride in the day or two around the Derby. They’re coming in from Florida, New York and California, yet there sits Borel, not too far from his front steps.
He’ll know better than any of the other 19 jockeys how the track feels when the dirt is wet, how tacky the dirt is, how loose it feels, how tight it feels. He’ll know in an instant whether he’ll be safe on the fence or if he should pilot his horse out wider so as not to tire them.
He’s also worth a drop in odds. If his 2013 mount, Revolutionary, is 15-1, Borel alone will attract enough attention to drop Revolutionary to 10-1. Few jockeys have that kind of swagger.
Trainer Todd Pletcher told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2010 that as great as Borel is, “anywhere he goes, for some reason at Churchill Downs he’s even five lengths better. He’s just figured out Churchill Downs.”
Borel Feels No Fear
A good friend of mine and colleague wrote a great column about the danger jockeys carry with them. Danger is their copilot, as John Pricci writes, and it’s how jockeys manage that fear that gets them back in the saddle.
Being a constituent in a stampede on a fragile 1,200-pound animal running 40 mph inspires little confidence.
Borel stares down this fear. The only thing Fear fears is Calvin Borel ... and maybe Johnny Weir. Borel borders on reckless, but only when he knows he has horse … horse and daylight.
Check out the video (it’s short, but pay special attention to Second 14). Borel has the horse—Mine That Bird—and he has daylight, but that window is closing faster than Ben Affleck in Boiler Room.
There aren’t many jockeys who have that kind of courage under duress. With Borel, there’s no thinking. Thinking could get him killed.
Borel Was Born to Ride
Back in the Louisiana bayou, Calvin up grew on a sugar cane farm. Hardly anyone went to school; Borel dropped out after the eighth grade and never went back. Namely because his brother, Cecil, knew Calvin would rather be schooled on the track and not in long division.
I wrote in Six Weeks in Saratoga that Calvin was once on a horse trained by his brother. Calvin and the horse took a nasty spill. Calvin was laid up for some time; the horse was fine, too.
As soon as Calvin was ready to ride again, Cecil put Calvin right back on the horse, the same horse Calvin crashed. Why? Why do this? To condition him against fear. To embed in him what it takes to reach the upper echelon of the jockey colonies.
So when most teenagers are learning to drive a car and focus on college dreams, Calvin—under his brother’s tutelage—followed what he was born to do. Ride horses, baby.
Don't Overlook the WinStar Connection
As we all know, sometimes in sports, coincidences line up, these magical twists of fate. Back in 2010, trainer Todd Pletcher saddled Super Saver for WinStar Farms.
Up until this point, Pletcher was 0-for-24 in the Derby and in one year saddled five horses in a single Derby. That’s 25 percent of the field … and he still lost.
What did Pletcher do in 2010? He gave Calvin Borel a leg up on WinStar’s Super Saver and Borel rode the rail and gave Pletcher his first—and only to date—Kentucky Derby victory.
Now, in 2013, Revolutionary was without a jockey.
Revolutionary is owned by WinStar Farms.
Revolutionary is trained by Todd Pletcher.
WinStar President Elliott Walden told The Blood-Horse,
"Calvin's Kentucky Derby experience and affinity for Churchill Downs makes him a perfect fit for most Derby contenders, and we're thrilled to have him aboard Revolutionary to once again carry the WinStar colors in horse racing's biggest race. Obviously, Calvin did a masterful job guiding Super Saver to WinStar's first-ever Kentucky Derby victory a few years ago, which is something we'll be forever thankful for. So we've had good fortune together, and hopefully, history can repeat itself on May 4th."