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.