February 15, Mike Tierney for The National –Meet Calvin Borel, the unpretentious Louisiana rider whose ever-present smile reveals no teeth, only gums. Out of that mouth comes words sprinkled by a charming Cajun accent as thick as jambalaya – mainly backwoods, with a touch of French.
Humility and a heartfelt appreciation for the opportunity that horse racing affords him has endeared Borel to American race goers. Even if he were the meanest rider on horseback, Borel’s fearless style would ensure his popularity. He famously finds daylight along the rail and squeezes between the barrier and the rest of the field, with no concern for his health and well-being.
Borel, 45, bubbled up on to the sport’s national radar with a ground-saving trip aboard Street Sense to win the 2007 Kentucky Derby. In fact, he had been riding the rail for years, as early as age 8.
He was reared on a sugarcane farm with four older brothers, all of whom trained and raced quarter horses for their father.
“I was born to ride,” he said. “This is what I wanted to do all my life. I knew from maybe when I was four or five, I wanted to be a jockey.”
He honed his craft at the region’s no-frills bush tracks, sometimes with only one other horse to beat.
The setting was a far cry from the spacious, storied racecourses associated with the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. Once, Borel looked over to size up the competition and noticed a rooster instead of a human in the saddle. Another time the jockey was replaced by a string of noisemaking cans.
“That’s what made me a rider, coming from there,” he said. “If you made it through there, you could make it anywhere.”
He accepted up to 17 mounts daily, establishing a reputation of being willing to ride on any level, from maiden claiming to Grade 1 stakes. Trainers who took a dim view of jockeys being choosy about their rides embraced Borel, knowing they could count on him.
After he guided Mine That Bird to victory in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Borel broke precedent by switching contenders for the Preakness.
Because no one anticipated Mine That Bird’s upset, Borel had committed to another stable for the next race. A promise is a promise. (And who could blame him for preferring the exceptional filly Rachel Alexandra, who won under Borel?)
His finest hour – two minutes, actually – was the 2010 Run For the Roses. Astride Super Saver, he outfoxed 19 others on a soupy course and stormed down “Borel Lane”, which the path along the Churchill Downs rail should be named, for his third Kentucky Derby win in four years. No jockey has matched such extended dominance in the race’s 138-year history.
“Riding is all I’ve ever wanted in my life,” he said. “This is all I’ve ever dreamed about. Horses are everything to me.”
They were once too much to him. Like many young jockeys desperate to meet limitations with body weight, Borel took extreme measures, purging and staying dangerously long in saunas.
Borel credits his wife Lisa, whom he met at a racetrack, with adjusting his diet, eliminating risky behaviour. She handles much of Borel’s business; he is not illiterate, as reported, but a slow reader.