Saturday, July 23, 2011
An Altoid for Horse Racing
Researches may cite this heat wave on global warming, the earth’s axis tipping a few degrees closer to the sun, Voldemort. But it has more to do with Saratoga starting up.
After a few opening days where it rained, it is now quite the other extreme. If not wet, then blistering kidney sweating kind of heat.
Racing, for once, has something else to focus on besides high takeout, video lottery terminals, or jockey Mike Smith's DUI. Smith, quoted by Daily Racing Form
, “I was driving on my home road down here, which is dark, and I got pulled over, and I blew a little over. It wasn’t like I was going 100 miles per hour, or being reckless. I was going a little over the limit on my home road.”
WTF! Are you serious? That’s worse than his final ride aboard Zenyatta.
Follwing Twitter on the morning of Opening Day was evidence that racing still has a toe hold on the mountain of American athletics.
New York Times turf writer Joe Drape said, “#Saratoga Race Course: What we needed. Enjoy & good luck everyone on opening day, especially Carl Myers & Aikenite.”
What we needed indeed.
How about this from ThePaper Tyger: “I admit to happy little *chill* when I hear Tom Durkin announce they are off in the first race at #Saratoga”
The only thing that sounds better than that is a burger on a grill.
Again, ThePaper Tyger: "There will be #horseracing at #Saratoga today. That makes the world a little better for the next 40 or so days."
Horse racing always seems to have a blackened eye, some self-inflicted, some by the very nature of its stature. Here are some reasons why you should be happy to love this game.
1. There’s no lock out
Sure, horse racing is laced greed, but when were the horses ever locked out? The show goes on and there’s not a dispute the likes of which we are seeing with this NFL labor situation.
Now, I love football, but the players need to ensure that their butts are covered for the next ten years, twenty years, etc. As more and more research comes out about head injuries, from acute and chronic contact, these guys will be drooling on their the heads of their grandkids—if they live long enough.
2. The CCAO
The Coaching Club American Oaks may be the Breeders’ Cup Distaff restricted to Three-Year-Old Fillies. The winner of the Kentucky Oaks, Black-eyed Susan, Acorn, Mother Goose, and Fantasy enter the gate together. The field contains only these five winners, which makes it a bad betting race, but a great throwdown that will be fun to watch, if that’s any consolation.
Royal Delta, the 2-1 morning-line favorite for trainer Bill Mott, missed training due to a foot bruise. But is unlikely to show a lack of conditioning.
“I don’t think it will be that much of a disadvantage,” said Mott. “This distance wasn’t an issue last time, and I think being fresh could be an advantage not for this one, but maybe for the [TVG] Alabama [Grade 1, Saratoga , August 20].”
Saratoga and Del Mar possess an allure that get us to focus on what’s good, for a change. Which isn’t to say that issues should be ignored, but when issues arise, like Mike Smith’s nonchalance, the CCAO is there to pick up the slack. When the talk of race day medication bogs you down, there’s the Jim Dandy to kick up your heels.
I mean, where can you spill water on yourself and be happy about it?
Says Andrew Mangini, “My cooler leaked cold water all over my shirt. And it feels fantastic.”
Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. It is available for at SUNY Press. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, follow him on Twitter, or "like" his book on Facebook. His website is http://www.brendanomeara.com.
Written by Brendan O'Meara
Saturday, July 16, 2011
“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt: Chapter 5—No Fear
The following is an excerpt from "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year, the last in a series leading up to Saratoga's Opening Day on Friday, July 22.
Calvin Borel’s head spun. Though he had been through a media blitz before in 2007, 2009 was a mutant hybrid in comparison. In 2007 Borel won the Kentucky Derby aboard Street Sense and he was catapulted into a celebrity he never saw coming.
Trainer Carl Nafzger, whom Borel calls Mr. Carl, believed in Borel. He believed that the horse would tell him what rider it would want and Street Sense needed Borel, a ground-saving specialist. In 2006, when they won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, both horse and rider were relative unknowns. Who’s that coming up the rail?
In 2000, prior to Street Sense, Borel had a horse with freakish talent named Dollar Bill. Dallas Stewart trained the colt that he felt was on his way to the Kentucky Derby. Borel had figured this quirky horse out, had won stakes races when Dollar Bill was a two-year-old baby. When Dollar Bill turned three in 2001, Stewart pulled the colt out from under Borel like a tablecloth and put Hall of Famer Pat Day in the irons.
Lisa Funk, Borel’s fiancée, watched Day ride Dollar Bill poorly. She maintained that Day was a fantastic jockey, but that he just didn’t have the rapport that Borel had with Dollar Bill. It saddened Funk to see a horse that possessed ability, ability that Borel helped coax out, slip from Borel’s aging hands. The feeling was that had Borel stayed aboard, then maybe they would have won the Derby that year.
Borel smiled, his eyes ever youthful. Don’t be fooled, it stung. Sometimes it felt like it would never happen. He just had to imagine that if he were aboard he could have lived up to his name. They call him Bo-Rail. Saying it aloud elicits a Southern enunciation, a Bayou-type brogue. Borel sees no move too grand and no slot too small for
him to thread a horse. Give him a hole the width of a smiling jack‑o’‑lantern and he’ll muscle a horse through and by. Borel’s brother Cecil, a horse trainer, always told him, “The shortest way around a track is on the fence.”
Such was the lesson he taught Borel when most teenagers are getting their learner’s permits. Borel took one of Cecil’s horses wide in a race and lost. Afterward Cecil made Borel walk the horse in circles around the barn. There, Cecil placed barrels, and on each lap he moved the barrels farther away from the barn’s center. He kept telling his brother to walk the horse around the barrels. See how much farther you’re traveling? You see? “It’s a little bit farther than going to the inside,” Cecil coached.
Blimp shots reveal Borel’s talent. The blimp shot of his 2007 Derby win illustrated his patience aboard Street Sense. While nineteen other horses slowed to a canter, Borel and Street Sense picked them off one by one, from twentieth place to nineteenth, and then to eighteenth. Borel and Street Sense peeled the paint off the rail in such a sleek manner. Borel guided the horse as if following a predetermined path, a river of dirt that pulled them—and only them. They struck the front and hit the wire first. Borel threw his arm into the air, tossing his victory high into the heavens.
Two years later they put Calvin Borel on a rat, a gelding whose stature was reminiscent of a pony at a petting zoo. The horse’s name was Mine That Bird and he was 50-1 heading into the post parade for the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. A Daily Racing Form handicapper wrote the following:
4 wins on synthetic surfaces, he was unable to last at a shorter
distance test in 2009; an ambitious placement to say the least; 5.40
Dosage Index is the highest in the field; sire captured the Belmont
Stakes and Travers; new rider won the Derby in 2007 with Street
Sense; could be a pace factor, but is hard to recommend.
Mine That Bird had nothing going for him, no bettor confidence, no signature wins in months, just a trainer, Bennie “Chip” Woolley, who was glued to a pair of silver crutches and down on his luck with one win in thirty-two starts to date. Woolley shadowed his face behind a broad Stetson hat, matching sunglasses, and a handlebar mustache reminiscent of a Chinese emperor. Perhaps all that Mine That Bird had in his favor was the 111-pound Cajun on his back.
From the rail in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, one saw the field of nineteen three-year-old colts and geldings march in the parade on a muddy surface. Mine That Bird looked so small, so outmatched. But there atop was Calvin Borel, his face creased in a smile, the folds of his forty-two-year-old face concealing the confidence that could have, and should have, swayed the betting public into his corner. This was Borel’s home track, and he was about to make Mine That Bird just as comfortable.
The gate blasted open and Borel, with an oxymoronic relaxed immediacy, steered Mine That Bird to the rail, content to watch the rumps of eighteen other horses gallop ahead. Mine That Bird was Rocky Balboa, a compact, tightly muscled commoner. The other horses, all the other horses, were Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago combined.
A few weeks later, Calvin Borel was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. Borel strode out in jeans and blazer. He swelled with a benign swagger. Letterman, a towering figure, literally looked down upon Borel from his gargoyle’s perch and said, “Now let’s talk about the Kentucky Derby. There’s a lot I don’t understand. Mine That Bird, 50-1, you start essentially dead last out of the gate, is that right? Then we see you moving along the fence there, what do they call it? The rail? I think we have some video here, is that what we’re looking at?”
Cut to a shot of the Kentucky Derby, the blimp shot—there went Borel and Mine That Bird, picking off every horse. As he passed the first ten horses there was not a single doubt that he would win this race, if he could just slip through on the rail.
Letterman continued, “Oh, sloppy track too. Look at that, that’s a thing of beauty, there you go,” and as they both watched the replay, they relived Borel slipping his horse through a slit of daylight, scraping the rail with his left boot, before going on to win by over six lengths. Once in the clear Borel stood up and pointed his whip to his fiancée, Lisa Funk, sitting in the grandstand. “Holy cow!” Letterman said. “Did you know that animal had that kind of speed before?”
“Yes, sir, I did get on him a couple times,” Borel said. “The trainer, Chip, told me to ride him with a lot of confidence. He tried to explain to other riders. When he’d run, he’d have them a little too close early. He had a turn of foot, but they were using it a little early.”
“But you hadn’t really met this horse until the Monday before the race?” asked Letterman.
“No, I got on him about three weeks before,” Borel replied.
Funk recalls a moment when Dallas Stewart mused with Borel, “You’ve won two Derbys and you could’ve won three.”
So it was just a matter of marrying the two to bring out Mine That Bird’s true running style, an unsung horse with an unlikely hero in the irons.
Calvin Borel, the youngest in a tribe of Borels, grew up on a sugar cane farm in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana. Down in the Bayou it was, as one would imagine, sweltering. The humidity hangs on one’s shoulders like a lead jacket and stays on day and night. But that was no excuse, no excuse to check work and work ethic at the door. The farm needed tending, the animals needed to be fed, and all else was secondary. So the Borels stabbed pitchforks into the straw and flicked the manure aside.
Cecil took Borel under his wing. He was there when his younger brother sat on his first horse at age two. In a thick Southern drawl, Cecil recalled his time on the farm with his mite-size brother. “Bad, very bad, bad,” Cecil said. “He wanted to get into everything, didn’t know what ‘no’ was. He was a good kid, but just bad. I don’t know how you say that in Uptown [sic] New York, but where we’re from, sometimes bad is good. He was just a kid who was into everything, and there was nothing that he couldn’t do, that he didn’t think he could do. That’s what made him a good kid, but he was a bad kid.”
Borel was always willing to put his word against another’s, and in so doing, words were eaten and Borel stood atop a pile of spoils. And once he sat upon the back of a horse that was it, that was all, that was his life. English classes, math classes, and science classes were cast aside in the name of racing. It was only a matter of time.
“He didn’t go to much schoolin’,” Cecil said. “I didn’t go, his three older brothers didn’t go much to schoolin’. We don’t have much schoolin’, but we work hard and horses were what we did and that was about it. There wasn’t much else. We did sugar cane, we did corn. But when it came down to me and my little brother, we left home to do the horse business. I left home and went to Kentucky [and] then I went to Chicago. Calvin followed me around, and the next thing you know he was doing the same thing. So it’s just one of those things that all we had was horses.”
So Borel, like his older brothers, cast aside the shackles of traditional education. His lessons were not bound by books but in the fields, under the unrelenting sun. He studied by means of morning gallops, with “exams” on the track in the afternoon. Homework was sweat, and grades were measured by the calluses on the folds of his hands, tested by action, by the yield of the harvest.
“Calvin was good at that, he would love to get into something,” Cecil said. “If you told him he couldn’t do this, he’d try to do it, and so that was what I meant by bad. I don’t mean bad by an ugly way. He grew up with my girls. He was very polite, but if you told him not to go ride this horse right here, he was going to ride him just to show you that he could ride him, and he would ride him and sometimes he’d get hurt, and he would just bide his time and start again. He was just that kind of person; he worked hard all his life. He worked hard when he was small. He come to live with us when he was seven or eight, with me and my wife, but like I said, he was kind of hardheaded, but hardheaded in a good way.”
Their mother, Ella Borel, was the strong, quiet type but a hard worker. Their father, Clovis, whom Borel takes after, spoke no English but would get rowdy depending on the circumstance.
“My little brother is quiet in front of the people in New York,” said Cecil, “but he can get a little rowdy. I’d say he takes after my Daddy. My Mama wouldn’t get rowdy, but my Daddy would get a little rowdy. I’d say he takes after my Daddy, cuz Mama was awful quiet.”
When Borel was a little boy, back when he was nicknamed Boo Boo, since he was born thirteen years after Cecil, and when he still attended school, he would hunt and do other things that boys do, but if it wasn’t a horse, it got in the way, it was a distraction. “It was always, horses, horses, horses, horses,” Cecil said.
They had horses at the house, so on Saturdays and Sundays Borel would ride in match races and in between the weeks when he was in school, he’d skip. These were races where a chicken was tied to the tail of a horse so the horse would have a rider. At the end of such races, the jockey would just jump off the horse and roll in the dirt until he came to a dusty halt. For the rest of the week Borel would come back to Cecil and slog away at the barn and the racetrack. “It was mainly horses,” Cecil said. “Where we come from, it was mainly horses.”
Horses—and loyalty, to their fellow man, to their neighbors, even if that meant telling them a searing truth, whether they were upset by the action of a neighbor or felt slighted by a friend. Such were the times growing up on the farm. Cecil doesn’t romanticize those early days; rather, he says they were troubling. But, “We didn’t owe nobody, we had food on the table seven days a week. It was real good. It’s kind of hard.”
Cecil maintains that people will try and stab you in the back, “Back home there was none of that ####. Back home, where we come from, everybody did their thing, paid attention to their thing, did the work, and went to church on Sundays, [and] after that we did our thing chore-wise. We went crawfishing on Sundays most of the time. We’d chill a lot of the stuff that we ate.”
Not only that, but it was communal; they were all brothers and sisters. Should one family slaughter a hog, many more would come over for a feast. Cecil, surely echoing the sentiment of the Borels on the whole, has found the mood in the North to be callous, cold, and even seclusive.
“It’s not the same, it’s not the same, not to me.” Cecil said. “To me, we were raised to say it like it is. I don’t know if you quite understand that. Like if we tell somebody off and they don’t like it, that didn’t mean that we didn’t have to be friends. If you say something and I would disagree with you, that don’t mean you gotta get mad and not be friends. That’s how we were raised up.”
Calvin Borel, on the cover of Sports Illustrated (SI), has his right arm extended, his hand balled up in a fist, choking his whip like it were a venomous snake. The SI headline reads: “ ‘Miracle in the Mud’ 50–1, Derby Long-Shot Winner Energizes Horse Racing.” In moments he would pluck a rose from Mine That
Bird’s blanket and throw it up to his parents. The rose flew, its redness in stark contrast to the grayness of the skyline; its thorns and stem and folded petals spun and fluttered at the peak of its ascent. Gravity threw it down, as if his parents caught it and gave it back and said, “No, this belongs to you, Boo Boo.”
Open the SI cover to the early pages and you’ll find a bird’s‑eye view of Borel committing to that most unthinkable slit of daylight. You can almost see Borel take his horse and slide through with near-reckless insanity. The track is pockmarked with hoof prints. Only four horses are ahead of him, and they have already lost, they just don’t know it yet. There is no thinking; thinking could kill him.
“They always drift out when they’re tired,” Borel would later say. “My brother always told me, inside is the shortest way around. It’s not as bad as it looks. I’ve been thrown over the rail, but if you’re afraid, you’re in the wrong game.”
In that SI photograph, Mine That Bird is smeared with mud. His muscles twist in folds like a basket full of garlic knots. Borel’s toes keep him steady in the stirrups, with four pairs of goggles hanging from his neck like Olympic medals. His eyes are as wide as dinner plates through his last pair of goggles. The mud stains both long shots, and Borel’s face is a dam of emotion on the verge of bursting and flooding the village in the valley.
After Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness Stakes, two weeks after his Derby win on Mine That Bird, making history in the process and elevating the profile of both horse and rider, Borel found his exposure erupting. With the backdrop of Churchill Down’s twin spires behind him,
Borel was on television yet again for ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, with Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser.
Borel sat humbly, like a student ready for a lecture. It was just another stop on the media blitz that found so interesting this uneducated man, who went from a dropout to a sport’s apex with sweat and heartbreak, and the nominal triumphs granted to those who endure. Perhaps it was because of the time he surfaced from devastating injury. A mount he had at Evangeline Downs, Miss Touchdown, clipped heels with the horse in front and launched Borel into unconsciousness. Borel hit a light post, smashing his ribs, puncturing a lung, and damaging his spleen in such a manner that it had to be removed. How cruel it was for a man who saw no limits to his work ethic, his mucking of stalls, his grooming of horses, his walking hots.
When he came out of the coma and was fully rehabilitated, Cecil, trainer of Miss Touchdown, put his brother right back on her. It was a test on the limits of courage and fear. It was also a time when he struggled with his weight. Borel is relatively tall and would take to heaving or flipping—induced vomiting—to expel the calories. He’d even roast his body in the hot box. These days he consults with a nutritionist and traded the hot box for a whirlpool and the occasional rubdown. He relaxes, often staring off into the clouds while other jockeys play basketball, ping-pong, or pool. In some cases he sits patiently during interviews.
“The last time you won the Kentucky Derby, Calvin, you met the Queen of England. Is there anybody in the whole world you would like to meet now?” Kornheiser said.
“Huh, no, I can’t say that,” Borel said, in that “aw shucks” way he has. “I wish I could talk to my mom and dad so they could see me right now and see what I accomplished in my life. I know they’re watching me from upstairs. I’m very blessed.”
“Horse racing is maybe not as grand a sport as it once was, but you’re becoming the most famous man in it—do you welcome that?” asked Komheiser.
“Yes, sir, I’m a real humble guy,” answered Borel. “I try to go out of my way to help anybody, autographing, doing things for the racing. I’ve been through it all. I’ve been a groom, walker, my brother aught me the right way. I went to the eighth grade and I left home. Like he told my mama, I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I was a natural. When I first started on the bush tracks when I was eight years old, I was just a natural. My brother told my mom and dad, ‘It’s him, he’s a natural.’ I lived with him, he kept me straight, kept me away from drugs, kept me on the right road, taught me to work hard, get on good horses, bad horses, I wasn’t scared. I had no fear. I think I gotta give my brother a lot of credit because he kind of raised me, kept me together in good and bad situations and made me a stronger person, and to never, never forget where you come from.”
“What a nice story,” Kornheiser said, and he squinted his eyes, looked into that camera, and was positively moved by what he had heard in five good minutes with Calvin BO-Rail. “Thank you so much, Calvin.”
Rachel Alexandra stood in her stall in Steve Asmussen’s Barn 65 tugging at her hay net. Nailed above her stall, atop the threshold, was a souvenir New York State license plate with her name in caps: RACHEL. Her security guards stood at ease.
Borel waited for a decision on her next start. He knew she was situated in Saratoga Springs, in Stall No. 1 at Barn No. 65 on the Oklahoma Training Track backside. It was July 2009 and the 141st Saratoga meet was just weeks away.
Soon enough Borel and Lisa Funk would pack up their belongings and begin the eastward trek from Louisville, Kentucky, their home, where Borel made a name for himself, where Borel became a star. Borel historically vacationed this time of year, electing to unwind from the Triple Crown season, but as dog tired as he was with the interviews, the television appearances, the newspapers, the magazine pieces, the autographs, and everything else that comes with being Calvin Borel, being Bo-Rail, his vacation would have to wait. The fear was that if he should sit on his haunches that maybe the horse of his life would slip through the cracks.
Of course this horse was Rachel Alexandra, the best horse he’d ever ridden and will likely ever ride. Such were the thoughts as their truck purred across Ohio and into New York. Soon, Borel and Funk unpacked their belongings into their summer apartment just behind the Saratoga Springs Police Department.
This is the final excerpt on Horse Race Insider. If you would like to read more, the author encourages you to buy a copy or to visit your local library. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller. "Like" "Six Weeks in Saratoga" on Facebook and follow Brendan O'Meara on Twitter.
Posted by permission from Six Weeks in Saratoga by Brendan O'Meara, the State University of New York Press (c)2011, State University of New York. All rights reserved.
Written by Brendan O'Meara
Saturday, July 09, 2011
“Six Weeks in Saratoga” Excerpt: Chapter 3—Is She the One?
The following is an excerpt from "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year.
The June sky was a radiant blue with suspended marshmallow clouds. Underneath this sky Rachel Alexandra, upon the urging of her jockey, Calvin Borel, saw a seam between the two fillies before her, and she split them like firewood. All Borel had to do was stay in the saddle as Rachel Alexandra opened up and up on this field in the Grade 1 11/8 miles $300,000 Mother Goose. The track camera panned out, yet still lacked the range to capture the other two horses. The gap between Rachel Alexandra and the field was nineteen and a half lengths by the time her flared nostrils hit the wire, an equally brilliant performance that brought back memories of the Kentucky Oaks, just less than two months ago. She soared over the dirt, bounding close to thirty feet per stride.
It was the first time Rachel Alexandra set foot in the state of New York, and she set a stakes record. Her skin gleamed with sweat, and the veins on her withers throbbed. A promotional poster leading up to the Mother Goose asked, “Is She the One?” Time would tell, but it felt that way. She would need to keep extending her boundaries and conquer more land, to slash the Gordian Knot, as Alexander the Great once did. For this reason, for the remainder of 2009, she would not run against fillies.
In the weeks leading up to the Mother Goose, the speculation for her next start caused a stir. Her Kentucky Oaks win was greeted with questions about whether or not she should have been running the following day in the Kentucky Derby. But after her goose‑bump-inducing win against the boys in the Preakness Stakes, she then became a drumming pulse not just on the racing scene but on the sports scene.
For Borel this trip with Rachel Alexandra to New York and to Belmont Park would be his second, his first since the disaster that was the Belmont Stakes. That experience grated at him and his agent, Jerry Hissam. Borel was chastised for not taking any mounts prior to the Belmont Stakes: instead he was seen walking the streets of New York with his fiancée, Lisa Funk. Perhaps Borel, a Kentucky jockey, was not refusing mounts but, rather, was not offered any. So the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes saw him aboard Mine That Bird, he Kentucky Derby winner. The trainer of Mine That Bird, Bennie “Chip” Woolley, took Borel back. The two do share a diamond-crusted Derby ring that will forever bind them. But in this Belmont Stakes, Borel moved Mine That Bird sooner than most expected, and by the end dueled with Dunkirk and finished third. Now the jockey whom everyone adored was being whipped. He moved too early! He should have had more mounts! Had they forgotten that just three weeks earlier Borel had left the Kentucky Derby with white paint on his left boot when he sliced up the rail on Mine That Bird to win? It was the day after he won the Kentucky Oaks by twenty and a quarter lengths aboard Rachel Alexandra.
Mine That Bird aimed for the Preakness. But what would happen to Rachel Alexandra, and who would Borel choose should both go to Maryland for the Preakness? For Borel there was no choice; he would ride Rachel Alexandra, but first it had to be determined whether Rachel Alexandra would run against the boys in the first place.
Dolphus Morrisson, the breeder and owner of Rachel Alexandra for her Oaks win, entertained dozens of phone calls. Then, when wine magnate Jess Jackson called him on Wednesday, May 6, 2009, well, Morrisson threw out a number, an egregious number, and Jackson said it was too much, no deal. Morrisson knew it was too big a price, but he saw Rachel Alexandra as a once-in-lifetime horse, one he wanted to hang onto, and should she be taken from his hands, it had better be for a lot of clams. After a time, Jackson got back on the phone, and said, reluctantly, that they had a deal. Though confidentiality agreements were signed by both parties, that number was said to be as high as $5 million . . . for a filly.
What prompted the deal was what Morrisson said following the Kentucky Oaks: that the Triple Crown races were for future stallions, and that fillies should not run against colts and geldings. This was perceived as chauvinistic, narrow‑minded, and even maddening, because he was sitting on Rachel Alexandra when she could be the fastest horse—male or female—in North America, but who would know? Jackson, revered as a gamesman, willing to keep horses in training, and willing to take chances with his horses by putting them in unconventional spots, put his money where his head was. What he saw in Rachel Alexandra was a generational horse, one for the ages, and there was no price too high to see whether he was right or wrong.
So Calvin Borel did the unthinkable. He took himself off the Kentucky Derby winner for Rachel Alexandra. Borel became the first jockey to take off the Derby winner for another horse in the Preakness. This, he knew, would be met with criticisms and darts, because it seemed that, on the surface, he kicked up sand and mud in the face of Mine That Bird and his connections, namely, trainer Chip Woolley. But just like Jess Jackson, he put his money where his head was, because even Borel saw that Rachel Alexandra was a generational horse, one for the ages, and it seemed there was no price too high to see whether he was right or wrong.
This brought Borel to Belmont Park, since Jackson and new trainer Steve Asmussen decided to rest Rachel Alexandra for a race farther downstream. Woolley welcomed Borel back on Mine That Bird, a gelding with a Derby win and a Preakness runner-up in a five-week span, to try and tackle the Triple Crown from the jockey’s angle. No, Borel failed in the Belmont Stakes, but he knew he would be back, and beneath that perennial smile in the creases of his forty-two‑year‑old face burned a need to show just who was boss and who held pocket aces.
On Wednesday, June 24, 2009, the New York Racing Association hosted a national teleconference with Jess Jackson and Calvin Borel leading up to the
Mother Goose, which was to be her first race since the Preakness. Of course this followed Borel’s gaffe, if one wants to call it that, in the Belmont Stakes. Naturally all the reporters were eager to hear how Rachel Alexandra was doing and how she might do in her first race against fillies since she embarrassed them in the Kentucky Oaks. And the elephant in the room was whether or not Borel would take any mounts on the day of the Mother Goose. This, Borel felt, came with the turf.
“And first to Calvin,” Mike Ingram of BlackAthleteSports.net asked, “I’d like to know if you’re going to accept any mounts prior to getting on board Rachel in the Mother Goose at Belmont.”
This question, were it possible, should have been directed at Borel’s agent, Hissam, but Borel fielded it all the same. Borel just gets on them—he lets Hissam go ahead and book the mounts, as he had done in their previous nineteen years of business, business that went all the way back to the Bayou.
“I really don’t know yet, sir,” Borel said. “I think my agent said I had a couple maybe to ride the day before. But it really doesn’t matter. You know, I know the track and I know my filly and I know what she wants and where we’re going to be. It really doesn’t matter. But I think I’m going to ride one other, two other horses actually for Ian Wilkes, I think.”
Wilkes, a Kentucky trainer, books Borel for many of his horses and he ships to New York for marquee race days his stock from barns eight hundred miles away. This idea that Borel rode only the big horses, like a diva jockey, was a myth. If Borel had his druthers, he would ride a number of horses every day, especially on a race day where the stakes are higher than just money. Borel gets out on the track and feels how his horse sinks into the dirt, how his horse gets over the ground, whether the rail is sticky, or if it is best to pilot his horse wider. Such details travel in a sort of osmosis into the psyche of the rider over the course for the day. Would Borel need this for a projected three-horse field in the Mother Goose against fillies that constituted junior varsity competition? The answer, in this case, was probably no, but reporters and fans alike would have circled like vultures should Borel err, ready to point straight to the fact that he had not been on a horse leading up to the race of merit.
Winning puts animosity to bed, and this was the case when Borel rode Rachel Alexandra in the Mother Goose. Gone were the questions of whether or not he should be riding more horses or not. Perhaps he would be vindicated on this front should he be a regular rider for an entire meet when surrounded by all things New York—jocks, trainers, and horses. He’d be given that chance, or at least that was his hope, for when he was asked whether or not he would be riding at Saratoga he said, “Yes, sir. I sure am. Yes, sir.”
And the reason, the only reason, was because of Rachel Alexandra.
After the Mother Goose, Rachel Alexandra scarfed down her food as if she had been starved all day. This training-by-the-feed tub is a good sign that after she set a stakes record her appetite was every bit as strong as it was the morning of the race. Even the next day, she ate every last bit of grain, an indicator that she was a happy horse ready for the next challenge.
Barely twelve hours after her record-setting win in the Mother Goose, Rachel Alexandra was on a van heading north to Saratoga Springs, accompanied by the thirty-five-year-old Scott Blasi, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen. The van grumbled out of Gotham and onto the Northway in the late-June air. Some four or five hours later, Blasi led her off the van and into Stall No. 1, next to his office, the same stall that was occupied by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, owned by the same man, Jess Jackson, and conditioned by the same trainer, Steve Asmussen. Naturally the hope was that Curlin’s greatness would rub off on her, though that may not be necessary. Rachel Alexandra, at this point, was her own name, her own brand, and great by any stretch. Comparisons to Curlin may be unfair to Curlin. No matter, this was where she would take residence for the summer and, presumably, into the fall. A number of races were tossed like angel hair, such as the Coaching Club American Oaks for fillies, the Jim Dandy on opening weekend at Saratoga, the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, or Rachel Alexandra’s first test against older fillies and mares in a try against the unbeaten mare Zenyatta in the Personal Ensign, also at Saratoga. Principal owner Jess Jackson knows well the rivalries in the sport of horse racing, being a part of one in 2008 with Curlin and the Big Brown camp. Words were traded like jabs and uppercuts, but Big Brown came down with a foot injury prior to the Breeders’ Cup, and the two never met. Now Jackson had Rachel Alexandra, and Jerry and Ann Moss had Zenyatta out West.
In North America, in 2009, it was said that the two best horses in the country were females, so what more could racing want than to see two competitive females squaring off, taking the spotlight away from the colts and geldings? Over the coming weeks and months, no subject in racing would be talked about more than Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Jackson’s camp was well versed in the Curlin-Big Brown sparring of a year ago. Their worry, if there was any, was the health of their champion filly. There would be time for that later, but it was evident that Jackson wanted a third consecutive Horse of the Year title, and that his only shot at it in 2009 was on the back of Rachel Alexandra. The feeling was that a meeting with Zenyatta would determine Horse of the Year honors come January 18, 2010, the date of the Eclipse Awards. Still, perhaps Jackson would have an ace up his sleeve that could trump all. Yes, the Zenyatta–Rachel talk percolated, but these horses are Fabergé eggs or the freshly frozen film of ice on a lake. No one could be more disappointed than the person who has expectations in a game so full of uncertainty.
As the van taxiing Rachel Alexandra neared Exit 12 on the Northway, the median was blanketed with a sheet of black-eyed Susans, the simply elegant flower that looks like oro, a golden propeller in constant motion. Normally it would have been just a pretty sight along a highway’s scenery that becomes mundane in the rippling summer heat, but this median carried an extra bout of meaning, as if whoever planted those flowers knew who was coming. Black-eyed Susans are the flower of choice for the Preakness Stakes, the race that made Rachel Alexandra a superstar and put her in Vogue magazine, and now before her it unrolled like a carpet, a yellow-brick road, on the way to the track that would be her home for the next 111 days.
Come back Saturday July 16th to see what else was up to in Six Weeks in Saratoga. You can order a copy from SUNY Press or from a your favorite bookseller. "Like" "Six Weeks in Saratoga" on Facebook and follow Brendan O'Meara on Twitter.
Posted by permission from Six Weeks in Saratoga by Brendan O'Meara, the State University of New York Press (c)2011, State University of New York. All rights reserved.
Written by Brendan O'Meara