Thursday, May 7, 2009

...The Horse He Rode In On

Calvin Borel was considered a "second-tier" jockey for most of his career.

Two years ago, he rode Street Sense on the rail (where most jockeys try to stay away from in fear of getting boxed in) made a bold move and won the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/4 lengths.

Last week he eclipsed it. And on a 50-1 shot no less. Riding, Mine That Bird (in dead last for over half the race) to the second biggest longshot to win in the 135 years of the Derby.


Mine That Bird was hardly even mentioned for most of the pre-race show. Never once mentioned as a horse who had a "longshot chance." The race announcer had to search for which horse was suddenly about to win, coming from nowhere. Even his trainer Bennie Woolley said, "I just hoped we would run well."

They were belittled for even being in the race. But Woolley, nursing a broken ankle, drove the horse 21 hours to Kentucky. Because if you get your shot, you might as well take it.

Never is the have and have nots so distinct than in horse racing. A sport known for big ridiculous hats and mint juleps; the Sport of Kings is full of "common men."

Mine That Bird was bought for $9,500 dollars. For some perspective on that,

Dunkirk cost $3,700,000 (finished 11th)

Desert Party $2,100,000 (finished 14th)

A jockey makes $50 per race unless they get first, second or third. A win gets between 600 and 1000 depending on the track. Some jockeys make great money, 10-15,000 per week. Others make very little. In fact, the average jockey makes less than $20,000 per year.

This for having statistically the most dangerous job in ther world. On average, 2 out of 750 working jockeys die every year on the track.

The alltime winninest jocket, Laffit Pincay Jr.,who won 9,530 races before retiring, called it quits after fracturing his spine and vertebra in a spill at Santa Anita.

Numerous jockeys have been paralyzed. Most famously, Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte.
Five years after winning the most famous race of all time (1973 Belmont) Turcotte fell at the very same track, leaving him a paraplegic.

Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day once said, "To retire on your own terms and not to have been paralyzed, that is considered success."

And no matter what your height, it is not easy to stay 115 pounds.

Jockeys weight themselves all day. At least 20 times a day.

They use stimulant drugs, exercise in plastic suits, spend long periods in saunas, and the old standby, purging (called "flipping" among jockeys). Many race tracks actually have "heaving bowls" installed in bathroom stalls to accommodate the 30% of jockeys who purge to make or maintain weight.

In other words, being a jockey is not for the weak.

The son of a sugar cane farmer from St. Martin Parish, La., Borel worked in the fields with his entire family as soon as he was able. When not farming, Borel learned to ride on the now extinct bush tracks, rural dirt tracks carved from the middle of cow fields. Track stewards were not around to enforce rules. Anything that could be thought to do was done, as anything was legal.

Horses would have beer cans with rocks in them tied to them. Other times live chickens were attached to urge the horses to go faster.

"I rode my first race at age eight. We would run 10.5 furlongs you know, we would go straight. And when you got at the end, there was a big airport. We couldnt stop em, we was too small, so we would jump off you know. The horse would turn around and someone would catch him. It was amazing. I was crazy."

When Calvin was 15 or 16, he took one of his brother Cecil's horses well wide and lost a race. After the race, Cecil made Calvin walk the horse around the barn. Every time they went around, Cecil moved a barrel further out from the barn and made his brother take the horse around it.
"It's a little bit further than going to the inside," Cecil pointed out, and a riding style was born.

It has earned him the nickname Calvin Bo-Rail. He urges his horses where most jockeys are unwilling or unable.

Calvin literally worked day and night, mucking stalls and working horses. During a race one night at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La., his mount, Miss Touchdown, clipped heels with another horse and flew into a light post. The horse was OK, but Borel had broken ribs, a punctured lung and had to have his spleen removed. He was in a coma.

When Calvin was healthy enough to come back, his brother Cecil put him back on Miss Touchdown for his first race. The filly won.

"If he was scared," Calvin's fiance Lisa Funk said, "his brother scared him out of it."

Cecil has been Calvin's racing mentor for much of his life. He's 13 years older than Calvin -- a biological fact that earned Calvin the nickname "Boo-Boo."

As in, a mistake.

Calvin Borel is now 42 years old and owns an eighth-grade education, dropping out after injuring his knee in a bush-track race. His fiancée, bristled at a Daily Racing Form story that referred to Calvin as "illiterate," but added that she's helping him with his reading skills.

"We lacked a lot of education," said Cecil, "But we didn't lack no work."

Calvin still doesn't. He admits to few hobbies. He says he simply loves horses and being around them. Borel still works six days a week. He rises by 5am to work horses or muck stalls at Cecil Borel's stable, regardless of whether it's a race day or not.

"Calvin's the hardest-working jockey on the racetrack, no doubt about it," said Bob Holthus, who has trained horses since 1952 and long has traveled the same circuit as Borel.

When he won on Street Sense, Calvin Borel was the toast of his sport. He was invited to the White House to meet the visiting Queen of England. He didnt know England had a Queen until then.

He talked horses with Colin Powell and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. He ate dinner next to the president's daughter, Barbara, as well as "a football player, I forget his name." (Turns out it was Peyton Manning)

He also turned down an offer to appear the following Wednesday night with Jay Leno, because it would cost him two days away from the races.

"I'd rather be out here with people," Borel said. "Working my horses."

This is where Borel is most comfortable: among the horse people and the race fans who cheer him on. The one place you never see Borel without a smile is when he's on the back of a horse.

Most Derby-winning jockeys take off any mounts they may have after capturing the roses. Borel showed up in the paddock for the 12th, got on the back of 10-1 shot Superb Ravi in an $80,000 claiming race and finished fifth.

"Everyone calls it a work ethic, but it's not work to him," Funk said. "It's something he loves.

"During all those times, he never gave up and he never got down. The money, he does not care. If he got $5 for riding that race, he would have ridden it the same way. Calvin would do it for practically nothing. It's his life. It's his desire."

As one writer once described him, "Calvin Borel is about as wordly as the horse he rode in on."

"I'm a very likable guy," Borel said matter-of-factly. "Everybody likes me, and I like everybody."
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